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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Research Projects

Paul's Spinach Trial

Two years ago Paul Lyons did the research part of his MSc in Horticulture, at UCC, here on the farm. The project was a trial of spinach varieties. He compared various hybrid spinach varieties with each other and with some open-pollinated varieties, including the varieties we were growing for seed here.  The results showed how much better the hybrids were at producing spinach by weight, and our varieties did not compare well at all. The best of the OPs was a variety developed in the US for organic production called Abundant Bloomsdale.  

The project demonstrated the need for trials to be carried out for all vegetables in Ireland as none have been carried out, in recent years.  It also highlighted the fact that the varieties we grow for seed are a bit random. We don't have time to carry out proper vegetable trials, and the decision to grow and subsequently save seed from a variety is usually based on 4 things.

1 what is already in our collection/bank
2 seeds  we pick up at swops
3 recommendations from other growers
4 whatever  happens to be in the garden centre

If a variety grows reasonably well here and then produces seed, it will go on the catalogue and supply our customers. If the feed back is good and we run out, we grow it again.   For cross pollinating vegetables like brassicas, onions and beets, we do simple observational trials.  We will often grow several varieties alongside, and then decide which one we like the best, and let it go to seed. 


For example, this year we grew several kales and we have now decided to save seed from two of them.  We are choosing them for purely commercial reasons, not because they did really well. Everyone wants the black Tuscan kale even though it is really not suitable for West Cork. The yield is poor and it was starting to flower in February, so Holly dug it up and brought it into the polytunnel so that it will feel more like it is in Italy. 

Bear Necessities is productive and really frizzy and cool looking so we will keep it too. If we were going for yield it would be the flat leaf one on the left called Medeley. It has produced a ton of greens, but we already have the Asparagus kale and people are not excited by flat leaf kales.

Holly's Sweet Corn Project.

In 2005 I bought some Golden Bantam sweetcorn seed from Stormy Hall in Yorkshire. I grew it successfully and saved the seeds. In 2006 and 2007 I tried other varieties, but they failed to mature their seed. So in 2008 I grew Golden Bantam again. Over the years it has been the only variety to produce a significant amount of seed, and because I am a squirrel by nature, I kept some seed from each year that I grew it. By 2014 I was worried that I had inbred it, as in the desperate summer of 2012, I only got seed from a small number of plants.  In subsequent years it seemed short the cobs were small. So, in 2015 I bought some Golden Bantam from the US and grew it alongside my own.  It was like a completely different variety. The plants were much bigger, and produced masses of pollen. 

The 1st and third rows from the left were from our farm saved seed and the 2nd and fourth were from the US seed. However they silked out so late that there was no pollen left to fertilise them and they produced almost no seed, whereas my little plants all produced cobs. The photo below shows the cobs (rows 1 and 3) from our seed and (rows 2 and 4) form the US seed.

Holly did her research MSc project last summer growing out several of the generations of the Golden Bantam and comparing them with a hybrid variety, and Who gets Kissed, a modern US variety, bred for organic production. The results were fascinating, but I will let her tell you about them herself.

The thing is:
There is an awful lot of very simple research that needs to be done to improve organic growing in Ireland. It is a terrible shame that the UCC MSc in Horticulture is no longer running.  I hope there are other horticultural students looking for projects next year because here are a few questions I would like answered.

Research Questions

1. What are the best varieties of pretty much everything to grow here? We need trials of all kinds of vegetables in all kinds of conditions.

2. Is there any point in growing plants for seed outdoors, if it is easier to do it in a polytunnel. In other words,  is there a genetic or epigenetic advantage to subjecting them to the full Irish summer.

3. Can you select for germination at low temperature and significantly increase the vigour of seedlings by throwing away the propagator and sowing directly in the soil, like we did in the olden days.

4. Is there any truth in the notion that plants with high 'nutrient density' i.e. their juice has a high Brix reading, are more resistant to slugs, and better for you, and that you can influence the 'nutrient density' with soil additives?

5. Do Russian kales actually cross with swedes?

6. How quickly do pea populations evolve? I have been growing Irish Green Peas, sourced from the Irish Seed Savers at least 15 years ago, every year. Do they now differ from those grown up in the County Clare?

The answers to these questions, could point to plant breeding projects that could be easily carried out. 


  1. Hi,
    I'm a small scale (amateur) plant breeder from France. I ask myself very similar questions to those you ask, specifically 1, 2, 3, 4.

    I work with a group of farmers who do produce their own seed, trying to preserve and "improve" upon local varieties throughout "Bretagne" (western part of France). To draw a very crude line in the sand, half are concerned by the high probability of a long and chaotic food security crisis throughout the world, in the next decades, especially as we have been witnessing more and more chaotic patterns in weather / crops / critters / ... in the past 2 decades. The other half does not believe this is a problem. I belong to the first half, and am interested in survival agriculture on the community level.

    Both sides however agree on the high value of what we call "variété population" (that would be "adaptivar" or "landrace" or "grex" in English). The main point of disagreement is : "how much variability". For most professional growers, who need to market their food, too much variability is a problem because most food cooperatives simply wont take their crops, including "organic cooperatives" (alas!). For subsistance farmers, on the contrary, a highly variable crop does not have many if any downsides, as its not used to market, but to feed a few families. And its the best crop insurance we can possibly have, on the seed producing side of the farming equation. The main concern for the subsistance farmer is to maintain diverse populations, and at the same time, preserve interesting heirlooms to be able and inject the original material back in the populations from time to time.

    Back to your list :

    1. yes. We need to do that, and sooner rather than later. We don't know the degree of climatic chaos (as in chaos theory, not mad max) to which we will be subjected in the next 3 decades, but we know in our local communities, that we need to at least achieve a 1/3 crop success in the worst years to be able and survive one winter, given we have stored enough (on a 2 years rolling period) as insurance to heavy crop failures. We try whatever we can put our hands on. One example : sugar beets grow well here, most years. But Yacon does even better and yields an equivalent weight of concentrated sugary syrup per weight of tuber, we can use to make any preserve which has sugar in it (jam mostly).

    2. One of the advisors of our breeders association is a research agronomist who specialized in the impact of fast epigenetic adaptations in landraces (in the span of a few generations). The evidence seems to indicate that selecting for real soil/climate conditions is an accelerator in epigenetic adaptation, but as in point 3 below, one can accidentally outselect variability, on extreme years, if not done carefully. There are a few outstanding examples of such selection in France, one of them has been achieved by Rachel & Pascal Poot in southern France, with tomatoes which fend for themselves in calcareous, almost sterile rocky soil in one of the most arid regions of southern France, without any irrigation. Tomatoes being mostly inbreeders, almost all of his selection has been done on epigenetic factors, and in a relatively short timescale (less than a decade). Some cultivars just couldn't adapt, but more than half of those tried tried did adapt.


  2. (continued)

    3. On this point my hunch is a big yes, even if its inconvenient. Joseph Lofthouse in the US (to take one example) in his very peculiar location and short growing season, is selecting a lot of crops for direct seeding, and has had some remarkable results, with extremely hardy melons, butternut squashes, corn,... There will always be the "special treat" crop which will be nursed like a baby indoors, but most staples, in my opinion, have to be able to fend for themselves, especially in a world where energy will become scarce. On the selection point of view, this induces a biais in a genetically diverse population, which can often lead to out-selection of all but one or two cultivars from a mixed population in difficult years. But you already know all of that !

    4. Now **this** really is a problematic topic. So complex that I haven't yet begun to form any sort of definitive opinion on the topic.
    - on the one hand you have the research conducted a century ago by Weston A. Price in "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects", which points in the direction of wholly organic and locally adapted diets being optimal, for lots of different human groups in diverse climates and soil conditions. The health status (at least dental health as far as Price was concerned) of those populations was found to be optimal. This goes in favor of the "grow diverse and adapted crops organically, and let them mine the nutrients your body needs in whatever soil you happen to live upon".
    - on the second hand are the research of Francis M. Pottenger Jr. on cats, and William Albrecht's surveys on the impact of leaching on health of populations in the US pre-1940, which help assert that whatever your body needs to function, if that nutrient is not available to the plant in the soil, it won't be in the food, and poor soils will breed disease-prone humans.

    Steve Solomon has written a lot on this subject, I have read his work as thoroughly as I can, also follow his private mailing list. It's very technical and involved. Plants are pushed to be as healthy as can be, by a lot of complementations (soil foliar, etc...). But, and there's a big but : all this is well and good in a world with plenty of unmined resources ; this agriculture, which is way way better than "conventional" ag, still is on a very carbon-dependant, non-renewable-dependant path. I cannot see it as being a global long term solution, "as is".

    On the same topic, Allan Balliett from the Biodynamics Now podcast interviewed Alan Kapuler a few years back, and Alan K. brushed off the "nutrient density by supplementation approach" as being in the "conventional ag" mindset. He seems to believe that much more can be achieved by genetics and adaptation of plants to a subsoil, in the long run, than by forcing said plant to be healthy in said climate / soil, by feeding it with imported elements.

    That being said, have a nice 2018 year, good crops, and a good health to all your family, and thanks for the excellent work you do (I've ordered some of your seeds this year to do tryouts here this year).