INSIDERS Why I Took the Flax Breeding Show on the Road

Why I Took the Flax Breeding Show on the Road

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Helen Booker
Helen Booker
Crop Development Centre - To inform the breeding of flax, Helen's research program centres around understanding the genetics of traits of economic importance in flax. Specifically, she aims to identify crop characteristics associated with improved agronomic performance and germplasm with novel traits and to explore various breeding methods and genetic tools, such as molecular markers to facilitate the transfer of new traits into new cultivars and breeding lines.

I just got back from a trip to Japan working with flax breeders. As the breeder for Western Canada’s only remaining flax breeding program, I was there to learn about how Japanese flax breeders work with an important crop that might fall under many people’s radar, but which is a hugely important commodity globally.

A significant percentage of Canadian flax goes to Asia. Networking with international flax breeders has become an important part of my job since I decided to take the western Canadian flax show on the road, so to speak.

Flax breeding in Canada has had a long history, starting at the beginning of the 1900s with a federal program operating out of Ottawa — one of the first registered Canadian flax cultivars was called Ottawa. The program eventually moved to Manitoba.

Flax breeding at the Crop Development Centre started in the late 1970s with breeder Dr. Gordon Rowland. It became an important crop in Saskatchewan and throughout the Prairies.

Gordon released a number of good varieties that are still in commercial production. CDC Bethune was released in 1998 and remains the third most popular variety in Western Canada. CDC Sorrel was released in 2005 and is to this day the most popular variety in Western Canada.

I released CDC Glas in 2014 and it is now No. 2 — almost tied with Sorrel. Having Gordon as a mentor was one of the greatest experiences of my career and taught me how important flax is to Canada and the world.

Because my flax breeding program is the only one in Western Canada, it’s crucial to work with international colleagues. They have much to teach us about the next frontier in flax breeding — solving the straw problem.

It’s no secret among flax growers that flax straw is notoriously hard to deal with. France is one of the largest producers of fibre flax in the world. They phenotype for stem fibre traits to reduce stem strength, which would help solve a lot of issues with straw management in the Canadian production system.

Taking the flax show on the road could help us conquer the next frontier in this crop, but a lot of work still needs to be done in order to incorporate these traits into new varieties that will grow well in Canada. The CDC flax breeding program is uniquely positioned to do this in Canada.

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