Wheat from organic breeding – a beacon project

Portrait of the breeder Michael Locher

“Despite the adverse weather conditions this year, our wheat varieties have proven themselves in cultivation. And that’s very reassuring,” says wheat grower Michael Locher happily. he has had a challenging growing and harvesting season. In many places strong thunderstorms in the summer of 2021 caused the grain to

lose its resistance to lodging, causing it to lodge against the ground. The following wet weeks encouraged what all farmers fear – grain sprouting in the ear: This refers to the grains germinating in the ear and losing their capacity to germinate or be used in baking. They can then only be used as fodder.

Michael Locher im Zuchtgarte
Portrait Michael Locher

The lengthy breeding process

Michael Locher (b. 1985) has been working for the grain breeding company Peter Kunz, GZPK for short, for nine years. Every year 80 to 150 wheats are crossed by hand and around 4,000 individual ears with good characteristics are harvested and re-sown. Only about 10% turn out to be of value and will be added to the parceled cultivation again in the following year and are used in new crosses. After several generations there are internal preliminary and variety tests on larger areas.

This is exactly what Michael Locher is responsible for. “I attend to the breeding lines from around the 7th Generation, meaning from the 7th year of the breeding process.  We grow them for observation in parallel at various test sites in Feldbach, Rheinau, Uster (CH) and in Hesse. I am also the contact person for our partners at the two locations in Italy,” explains the breeder.

Kreuzungen in Feldbach
Crossings in Feldbach

The Path to Breeding

Before joining the GZPK, Locher did a bachelor’s degree in agronomy at the University of Applied Sciences in Zollikofen near Bern, specializing in “International Agriculture”. During his studies he was in charge of a project in India for the cultivation of organic cotton.

“After that, it was clear to me that I definitely wanted to combine research and practice,” says Michael Locher. His work placement at GZPK immediately convinced him. “Everyone here has a wide range of tasks and a high degree of personal responsibility. At the same time, working as part of a team is also incredibly important.”

Zuchtgarten GZPK
The breeding garden of the GZPK on Lake Zurich

Breeder AND farmer at the same time

In addition, he runs his own farm within a lease community. In addition to keeping a suckler cow herd and caring for vines, he also grows wheat, spelt, millet, rape, rye and oats. Most of the harvest goes to mills, the smaller part (almost 2 tons) is sold by Michael and his family directly in a small farm shop.

This is rather time-consuming but also has a great advantage. “I see both sides every day: Breeding on the one hand and cultivation on the other from the perspective of those who grow the varieties and somehow have to make a living from them,” explains Michael Locher.

Michael Locher mit einer Rätischen Grauvieh-Kuh
Locher with Rhaetian Grey cow on his farm

The tasks over the course of the year

His tasks over the course of the year are very varied. “In October I sow the winter cereals, in winter I evaluate the previous year and draw up the next crop plan. Spring begins with the documentation of emergence, which is what farmers call the germination and early growth of the grain. From then on I walk through the plots almost every week and document the vigor,” says the breeder.

He also examines the plants for typical fungal diseases such as powdery mildew, brown rust, yellow rust, ear septoria and fusarium wilt. Are there any signs of these diseases? How much is it spreading and how much does growth suffer? Things such as the distance between the ear and the flag leaf and the distance between the ears are also relevant. They shouldn’t grow too close together so that they can dry off if they get wet.

Weizenähren im Zuchtgarten
Ears of wheat in the breeding gardenim Zuchtgarten

Small rolls for quality control

The most labor-intensive phase of the year is from July to September. Everything has to be harvested in a short time, and in rainy summers like 2021 it is a challenge to find the right window for harvesting. After the harvest, the grains are weighed and the total yield of a plot is determined. This is followed by the scientific baking quality analysis, which includes so-called mini baking tests. The harvested and ground grain is used to bake small rolls with different rising times. The bread volumes are used to determine how well the respective breeding lines perform when baked.

“Based on all this data, I select individual breeding lines for cultivation in the following year. In the 10th or 11th generation, I finally decide which varieties are eligible for official registration. Usually that’s two strains a year,” explains Michael Locher. Only when the breeding lines have proven themselves in a two-year trial cultivation at the Federal Plant Variety Office will they be approved for sale. The approved varieties are then further propagated by Sativa Rheinau AG so that enough seeds are available for cultivation.

Backversuch Prim
Different grain lines in the baking trial

Best seller

Michael Locher’s activities also include advising farmers on the cultivation of the already approved wheat varieties from the breeding of GZPK founder Peter Kunz. The Wiwa variety (approved in 2005) has been the most widely grown variety in organic farming in Switzerland and southern Germany for years.

It is considered to be very reliable even under difficult conditions, be it in the severe spring drought of recent years or in view of the heavy rain this summer. Wiwa brings stable yields and scores with high growth stability and very good baking properties.

Wheat variety Wiwa

Growing market shares of organic varieties

In terms of quality, Tengri (2007) performs somewhat better but is less resistant to lodging. The variety Pizza (2012) is characterized by vigorous growth, which has proven itself against high weed pressure. In the Swiss organic seed market, the wheat varieties, all of which are bioverita-certified, have a market share of 60%.

In southern Germany, where Bioland Handelsgesellschaft in particularly is advocating the cultivation and propagation of varieties from organic breeding, Wiwa alone has a 45% market share, the other varieties together 5-8%. In an extreme cultivation year like 2021, the varieties acted as “risk protection” in many places, as the magazine “Der Zürcher Bauer” commented in August.

Wheat variety Tengri

The organic variety of the future

However, breeding continues. It has to go on, as Michael Locher explains: “There will never be the one perfect variety. In addition, we always have to deal with new requirements. Climate change, new demands in processing or the appearance of new pathogens to which the plants are not yet resistant.”

Another breeding goal is also greater resource efficiency, as the breeder calls it. The varieties of the future should achieve a stable yield despite low amounts of nitrogen and, at the same time, good baking quality at a medium amount of protein.

Grain harvest

Organic breeding sets standards

When Peter Kunz started his breeding work 30 years ago, the need for organic varieties was enormous. Much has happened in the meantime, the organic varieties have become so well-established that conventional breeders have started to copy things and now there is a conventional industry association who wants to test a variety from organic breeding for its own recommendation list.

A promising development. “This wheat is a beacon variety that shows that it is possible to set standards as an organic breeder,” says Michael Locher happily as he looks into the future with optimism. 

Ausblick Zuchtgarten

Photo credits: Michael Locher (photo 4), GZPK (photos 6, 9), rest by bioverita