Welcome to the Citizen Seed Trial 2020 blog series! This year we’d like to introduce you to the people behind the Citizen Seed Trail project, from plant breeders and seed producers to the facilitators who make the project possible. We’ll be (virtually) sitting down with a number of these people throughout the coming months to discuss the crop they’re involved with and why they think a project like CST is important in British Columbia!
To begin with, meet Carla Hick! Carla is coordinating the 2020 CST and is an invaluable source of knowledge on all things CST. She recently joined me on a call from her home in the Okanagan to discuss this year’s trial. Listen to the recording above or read the transcript below!
Steph Benoit: Hey Carla, thanks for joining me today.
Carla Hick: Hi Steph! Yeah, you’re welcome, thanks for chatting with me.
SB: So to begin with, could you tell us a little about what the Citizen Seed Trial is?
CH: Yeah, definitely. The Citizen Seed Trial is a participatory variety trial that uses citizen science. So, we recruit backyard gardeners across BC (and sometimes further) to grow a variety trial, learn from their experiences and then interact with our teachings.
The project was started in 2017 as a complimentary project to the BC Seed Trials (which has now evolved into CANOVI). It was a way to– and still is– a way to engage the public in the seed conversation within a vibrant BC seed community, learn about and gain experience in citizen science, vegetable growing and seed saving.
SB: Awesome. So then could you explain what a variety trial is and how is that different from a citizen science variety trial?
CH: A variety trial is a research method in which vegetable varieties are grown out under the same conditions to observe and assess functional traits. For example, a farm could be trialling 10 parsnip varieties and be looking for resistance to pests, disease and bolting as well as size and flavour. The results learned from the trial can be used to inform farmers’ decisions on which parsnip seed varieties to use for their farm operations and can also be used to inform breeding priorities for plant breeders. Variety trial replicates can be performed on many farms in different locations which will yield place-based results. So one parsnip variety may be very well suited for a coastal climate but then another variety may be better suited for dry inland climate. Through the variety trial process it identifies that variability and then a farmer or gardener could choose a seed variety based on trials that have already been done, so they don’t have to test it out when they’re expecting to get 100 pounds of parsnips varieties for their market sales. They want to know that ahead of time– they want to know what they’re getting into.
And then a citizen science variety trial uses the principles of an on-farm variety trial, however, it is more focused on participation and experiential learning to educate the participants and is more about the journey rather than the end goal. It can often be difficult to have concrete results coming out of a Citizen Seed Trial so it’s about that learning experience and for the benefit of the people in the trial.
SB: So Carla, what is your role in the Citizen Seed Trial?
CH: In the past and this year, I have worked at Seedy Saturday events to inform people about the project, answer questions and get people signed up. We also do this through the newsletter and social media. And then this year, I have taken on a larger role with CST and am excited to be guiding participants through a unique trial and I’m honoured to share experiences and knowledge learned from the BC Seed Trials, the Canadian Organic Growers Organic Vegetable Seed Production Course and my seed security work with FFCF and the Okanagan Seed Savers. So essentially I guide the participants through the CST, letting them know about different breeding projects, giving them history on the seed, really getting that seed conversation going about what we’re looking for in the plants, what considerations breeders might think about, how we put our citizen seed science hat on, what kind of observations we’re looking for, and then throughout the season here we’ll bring in experts to do webinars and other educational material so they can hear right from breeders and right from the source information to guide them through that.
SB: What crops are being trialed this year?
CH: This year, we are kicking it up a notch by looking at diverse breeding populations of not just one crop, but three crops. We’re looking at tomato, watermelon and kale.
For the tomatoes we are trialling a F3 teensy family dwarf tomato breeding line and then comparing that to an established soleil cherry tomato variety. This one is of interest because dwarfing tomatoes have a really compact plant habit, don’t require staking, produce good yield and can be favourable for container gardening and other confined spaces. And then we always want some sort of control variety to compare it to, so the breeding population is our trial variety and then the established, cultivated variety, Soleil cherry tomato is our control.
For kale we’re looking at a Winter Rainbow breeding line that was produced from an initial cross of lacinato and redbor and we’re comparing it to an established Dazzling Blue kale variety. The initial winter rainbow line was started from a selection of plants that were the only plants left standing after a very cold coastal winter. So when farmers and breeders came out to the field and all their crops were decimated but this winter rainbow kale plant stood strong and mighty in the field that was definitely of interest. They captured that and wanted to save the seeds from those and capture those genetics because in Canada it’s really important to have kale that can overwinter really well and stand up to cold conditions.
And then for watermelon we’re looking at a free pollinating population of 22 varieties and we’re comparing that to an established Blacktail Mountain short season ice box variety. Watermelon is of particular interest in northern climates because it can be hard to yield large fruit because it has such long days to maturity and because in the northern hemisphere, especially in Canada, we have a shorter summer than a lot of other places in the world.
This year presents a unique opportunity for citizen scientists to engage with the complexities of a breeding project. In the first couple of years we did a more standard variety trial with lettuce and then cherry tomatoes and then last year we added a layer of observing and analyzing the performance of locally adapted vs. imported seed. And then, like I said, we’re just kicking it up a notch again by looking at three crops and also looking at breeding populations so things are going to get interesting.
SB: So can you elaborate on some of the strengths and challenges that come with a Citizen Science approach to variety trailing?
CH: So I would definitely say variability. We’ve got a lot of people participating from all over BC. We’ve got a few in the US and one in Montreal. So everyone’s experiences are going to be a little bit different and the way they observe, analyze, collect data, that’s also going to be a little bit different, too. This variability does present quite a few challenges, but it also can be taken as a strength, because learning from your own experiences and learning from others experiences through this process is very powerful! Also, the resulting data is variable as people may be measuring or interpreting things differently– so the results won’t be strong enough to write a publication or share those stats widely. Rather, the process and results are used to enhance the personal learning experience of the citizens or participants of the trail.
SB: Why do you think the Citizen Seed Trial is an important project for engaging people with seed growing in BC?
CH: It’s an important piece to get people thinking about their seed source, how to grow vegetables from seed and to connect with observations that a plant breeder would need to consider when breeding vegetables. It also just allows people to be a part of the seed conversation and creates awareness about the seed growing capacity in BC!
SB: Where does the citizen seed trial fit into the wider movement around local, sustainable seeds in BC?
CH: Our citizen scientists have an important role in continuing the seed conversation and advocating for seed security and they could also become our seed growers down the line and certainly we want to support that.
And overall, from our perspective here at FFCF and from many other individuals and organizations, it is vital to support quality, open-pollinated, heirloom and locally adapted seed today, because that is our food of tomorrow (or a few months down the line). After all, 9 in 10 bites that we take on a daily basis comes from seed. And if we want good food that is diverse, sustainable, nutritious and publicly available we need to keep the seed conversation alive and advocate for local, sustainable vegetable seed sources that are publicly available and are open-pollinated, which then allows that seed to be saved again in the future, and preserves biodiversity and secures food supply in the future.
SB: The last day to sign up for seeds in the 2020 season was March 24. Is there still a way for people who are interested in the results to follow along?
CH: Absolutely! Everyone is welcome to sign up for the CST newsletter which can be found at www.bcseeds.org/citizen-seed and people are welcome to join the facebook group that’s called Citizen Seed Trial. So we’ll send out regular communications, people can interact, learn, the sky’s the limit. It’s just that each year we are limited by how much seed we can send out to people but we certainly don’t want to limit the amount of outreach, education and participation. Followers that have not received seed from us specifically still have an opportunity to engage with the virtual educational material that the BC Seeds team will be offering, they can connect with growers of similar interest on the Facebook group, could choose to practice their own variety trial with seed they have sourced from elsewhere , and then they can engage with us by keeping a vibrant seed conversation alive within the BC Seed Community and beyond.
SB: Where should people go for more information if they are interested in joining the 2021 trial?
CH: So definitely staying connected to our program at FarmFolk City Folk and staying connected to the communications that we offer. FarmFolk CityFolk is on Instagram and Facebook, and then we have the Facebook group that I mentioned before that’s called Citizen Seed Trial (you can just search it in the bar once you go on to Facebook), you can read along on the BC Seed Grower, which is a monthly newsletter, which can also be signed up for on our website at www.bcseeds.org/newsletter. When we announce the 2021 trial which will do in late 2020 or early 2021, we’ll do it thorough all of those communication methods, and people will have up until about mid-March to sign-up, and the earlier you sign up the better chance you will have to receive seed. Also, we always provide information to Seedy Saturday and Sunday organizers in BC, so it gives them an opportunity to tell people about the program at their local events and get people signed up for the trial. So stay connected to your community groups and keep an eye out for Seedy Saturday/Sunday events and other communications through us.
SB: Great, well thank you so much Carla for sharing all that information with us, I’m excited to see how the 2020 trials end up!
CH: Yeah, absolutely, thanks so much! I appreciate you asking all these questions and if anyone else who is listening to this would like more information, please connect with us through the website, reply to the newsletter, or on Facebook. We’d love to connect with you!