This week, we had to shut down operations at our field lab. Like all breeding programs at the CDC, we are not quite ready for spring seeding and as of right now aren’t quite sure when it will begin. We have sent seed and envelopes home with some staff to try to keep up, but there are tasks that require the equipment stored at the field lab, like colour sorters and seed cleaners.
We are working to come up with a standard operating procedure that we hope will allow us to seed this spring while maintaining the safety of our staff. This will be tricky, but we think we can do it. That said, everyone is making triage lists of trials that can just go on the shelf until next year.
Deep down I am mentally preparing for no field season, but the fact that beans don’t get planted until late May/early June gives me a glimmer of hope that things will go ahead.
Everyone on my genomics team who is able to is working from home — including me. We shut off all lab equipment yesterday and locked the door — no more sequencing for a while.
Still, there is important work to do. There are crossing blocks in growth chambers right now. We are scrambling to get permission to have a few staff members be allowed to access the chambers to wrap this up. There is a lot of unique material in crossing blocks that is irreplaceable should staff not be able to get in to complete the work.
We have many challenges to deal with, but breeders are used to being challenged.
Dry beans were not supposed to grow this far north — they are from central America, originally. I inherited the breeding program in 2004 from Bert Vandenberg and continued to breed for narrow row, dryland and irrigated production here in Saskatchewan. While most of the beans here are grown in the irrigation district, with new varieties like CDC Blackstrap growers are now able to grow beans in other regions without all the fancy equipment traditionally used in bean production.
There is a sense out there that you need fancy equipment and irrigation to grow dry bean, but this is not true — and we’re always working to help growers understand this. Yes, irrigation will help a lot with yield, but it is not critical.
We’ve always been innovative, and we will continue to do so even now. New varieties are coming out of the program. Aside from the more standard dry bean market classes (pinto, black, navy, yellow), I also dabble in fun market classes like flor de junio (pink and cream stripes), carioca (a favourite in Brazil), pink, small red, and some non-traditional types that I call “future heirloom beans”.
Our program introduced the world to slow darkening pinto beans, and we continue to develop new and improved cultivars. We also released the first yellow bean to reliably mature in western Canada — CDC Sol.
Because we do all our testing in Saskatchewan, we know that what is released will reliably mature here. I have seen growers bring varieties in from the U.S. only to discover that the reason they are higher yielding is because they are a week later maturing. In our growing region that can mean running into a killing frost and losing most of the yield.
We’re in a challenging time right now with this pandemic, but the crops we breed at the CDC, including beans, have been cultivated for centuries. This pandemic has forced us to identify our priorities and work to hone our programs, which can only have benefits for the future.