Archive for the tag 'Plant Breeding'

Bingenheimer’s resident plant breeder, Ute Kirchgaesser, is on to something. Really, she’s probably on to many things, but to describe them all would take a book and I only have one blog posting.

Ute has what equates to a master’s degree in horticulture, but her German title sounds much better; Meistergartnerin. She got her start in plant breeding with a family run seed company where she learned the basics of traditional plant breeding, and has combined that knowledge with a more esoteric knowledge of an anthroposophical kind. All of these experiences combine to make her something more like and Ubermeistergarternerin if you ask me. But if you ask her, she is just a vegetable breeder.

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Ute is working on developing a summer fennel. She is in the process of improving some leek varieties, and also is working to re-invigorate some old kales. She is in charge of the on-site seed production for Bingenheimer’s catalog. And she is also working on a project that even she can’t explain.

In 2002, she began to study what effect musical intervals have on plants. Previous studies have been done that show that plants respond well to classical music, and not so well to death metal. Ute wanted to know if a particular sequence of notes effects plants more than another, and she wanted to know if this effect can be seen in subsequent generations. She set up a research project working with some lettuces, which she surmised would show results quickly due to their rapid growth.

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1 Comment Sarah Kleeger on Jan 17th 2007

We left Greifswald for Bingenheimer Saatgut AG, the largest biodynamic seed company in Germany, Leaving super extra early on Tuesday morning, we traveled via “Mitfahrgelegenheit” through Berlin and on down to a small town northeast of Frankfurt. “Mitfahrgelegenheit” is the musical word for ‘organized rideshare’, and there are several websites that one can use to post rides wanted or rides offered. People in the US use Craigslist for this purpose, but in Germany the practice is more widespread and therefore more effective. Mitfahrgelegenheit costs about half as much as a train and can get you there twice as fast, and it is a good way to meet people. Since we traveled so far, we pieced together two rides and had a few hours to hang out in Berlin. We were delivered to the door of Bingenheimer, 13 hours after the start of our journey – not really twice as fast as the train but still half the cost!

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We stayed, worked and learned with the kind folks at Bingenheimer for three work days, from Wednesday through Friday. This was our first visit with a seed company, and we learned a lot and had a really good time. Andrew was in heaven being surrounded by so many seeds, and the sense of community there really impressed me. But these are just two of the indicators that Bingenheimer Saatgut AG is not your average seed company. It is primarily Biodynamic. It is the hub for a network of 30 Biodynamic vegetable breeders in Germany. It was once part of and is still affiliated with the Lebensgemeinschaft Bingenheimer, a Camphill-esque community that fully integrates people with developmental disabilities into the tasks of daily life. As such, the Saatgut Werkstatt (seed workshop) is one of five workshops that employ disabled people in the community; they also rotate through candle making, woodworking, ceramics, and weaving workshops. Additionally, some of them work on the biodynamic dairy farm and others in the gardens, helping to grow food for the community and seed for the seed company.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Jan 16th 2007

The Vavilov Institute is located in two beautiful old buildings in the main part of St. Petersberg. We were told that the government does not believe the Institute needs to be located on such prime real estate (right next to the Hotel Astoria and other big-money hotels), and so they do not provide them with the funds to maintain the buildings.

Some of the space of at least one of the buildings is rented out to other businesses and this building, which houses the herbarium and some of the gene bank, as well as many offices, is in the course of renovation — the outside is complete but the inside has far to go. This is the building that we spent most of our time in — it houses Sergey’s office.

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Left: Sergey Alexanian, our great host. Right: One of many Vavilov Statues.

We had the opportunity, though, to walk across a great traffic circle (the “backyard”) to the Institute’s building on the other side. This building was initially designed to be apartments for nobility (200+ years ago), and some of the interiors were reminiscent of the Hermitage, with gold plating on the walls and frescoes in the halls, and ornately carved ceilings throughout. This is where the Director of the Institute’s office lies, and also where the private Vavilov Museum is located. There are also two great halls capable of hosting at least 100 people for conferences and the like, and also many other offices that we did not see. Our tour of this building began with a walk around to see some of the more impressive rooms mentioned above.

Next we went to the private Vavilov Museum, which consists of several exhibits detailing the achievements of Vavilov as well as those of the Institute. There are maps depicting Vavilov’s Centers of Origin, and maps that show where he himself went on collecting missions over a 20-year period from the 19teens to 1940. The most impressive map, though, is the one that details all of the collecting missions that have been carried out by all staff of the Vavilov Institute over the past 100 years – this map is nearly all marked up, except for locations that are very far north. This is especially impressive when one considers the political situation with Russia for most of that time, and the financial situation now.

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Photos from left to right: Sergey giving us the museum tour, books in Vavilov’s study, map of the institute’s collection missions, N.I. Vavilov.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Jan 6th 2007

On Wednesday we had the pleasure of taking a tour of parts of the Vavilov Institute. The first stop on our tour was the Herbarium. An herbarium is a collection of preserved samples of plants or plant parts, usually pressed on sheets of paper, for scientists and researchers to view. The herbarium at the Vavilov Institute is home to over 200,000 such samples, collected by Vavilov himself and other scientists on collection missions throughout the world. It was once one of the preeminent herbariums in the world, but now the largest herbariums in France and England house over seven million specimens!

We were very excited to see the herbarium, but also a bit surprised at its condition. Everything was very clean and well organized, but it seemed that funds were deemed to be more useful elsewhere, as the lights were off and the room was lit through the open curtains only (this could be better for the specimens). There was no climate control, and the cabinets and boxes used to store the specimens were quite antique looking. Many aspects of the Vavilov Institute seem to be straight from another time, and the herbarium was no exception.

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Left: Preparing seeds to give to VIR. Right: The Vavilov Institute.

There were a few people working in the room, examining specimens at their leisure. The coordinator took a few minutes to show us some samples that are kept out as examples of the layout of different types of plants. We viewed samples of a grass and a tree, and observed how they were filed according to species in boxes stacked in row after row of tall wood cherry wood cabinets. One of the samples had the signiture of Vavilov on it — this was a sample that he had actually collected! After sufficient oohs and aahs, we walked down to the office of one of the scientists.

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Left: Sergey showing us the the Herbarium collection. Right: A specimen collected by N.I. Vavilov in the 1920′s.

We were quite happy to meet the Director of Legumes, Dr. Margarita Vishnyakova. In her office we found petrie dishes with examples of the different species of beans and peas, and a large case filled with different fava bean (Vicia faba) varieties. On her wall were two mosaics made from beans, and on shelves around were giant pods from leguminous trees and branches from different leguminous plants.

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1 Comment Sarah Kleeger on Jan 5th 2007

Latvia for new year’s eve was a bit more drunken than our other new year’s spent traveling, when we were in Malaysia (2003-04). A few thousand people gathered under the Freedom Monument in the central part of Riga, danced in the street to pop music courtesy of a live DJ, and oohed and aahed at fireworks exploding directly overhead, closer than I have ever seen them. We were in Latvia for about five days, but most of this time was New Year’s holiday celebrations, and so our opportunities for meeting with seed related contacts were minimal.

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Photos Left to right: Powerful statues outside the Latvian Occupation Museum, Beautiful Old town Riga, The liberty Statue (where people where once thrown in jail for putting flowers at its base).

Our first impressions of Latvia seemed to indicate that this country was much more economically developed/ “successful” than Lithuania, judging only by superficial views of the size and glitz of Riga compared to Vilnius, the amount of English speakers, and the general cosmopolitan feel of the city. Because of these opinions, we were expecting the Organic scene here to be more mature than in Lithuania, but we learned that in many ways Latvia is on par with Lithuania, and in some ways has further to go in developing organic agriculture, seeds, and markets.

We had the luck of arranging a last-minute visit with Dr. Livija Zarina of the Priekuli Plant Breeding Institute, about a two hour bus ride north east of Riga. The work at the Institute, whose logo is a potato flower, is focused almost entirely on field crops. The state institute of Priekuli owns 286 hectares and grows on an additional 100 hectares rented from neighbors. The six departments at Priekuli include potato, barley, tritcale and rye breeding programs, agrotechologies, seed production of field crops, and a tissue culture lab. They have also managed a small organic experimental field for many years now, which Dr. Zarina counts as one very important aspect of Priekuli, “We are really rich. Not many places have this, but in ours, it exists.”

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Photos right to left: Dr. Zarina our host at the Plant Breeding Station, A beautiful Potato flower for a logo, Display of their pea breeding accomplishments, Short term seed storage, Latvia’s main organic certification office.

Dr. Zarina is the Head of the Agrotechnology Department, and her work is focused mostly on canola. She is also involved in an intensive study that, for at least the past ten years, has been trying to establish a system of crop rotation that is beneficial for fertility needs of organic production of Latvia’s main field crops of rape, rye, barley, peas, and a few others. The experiments are evaluating six fertilizing schemes and soil management practices with 11 different crop rotations.

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1 Comment Sarah Kleeger on Jan 3rd 2007

Thursday began with a drive out to the countryside for a visit at the Lithuanian Institute of Horticulture. We were welcomed by Dr. Rasa Karkleliene, Head of Vegetable Breeding Sector and Scientific Officer, and Dr. Adrius Sasnauskas, Vice-director of Science for the Genetic and Biotechnology Department (!).

We gathered in the board room and watched a very professional video explaining the size and scope of the Institute, with images of some of their over 400 hectares of idyllic apple and pear orchards, biotech labs, and delicious-looking (GE!) strawberries. The Institute is involved in every aspect of food science, from variety development to processing all in one place. They are funded only 30% by the Lithuanian government, with other funding sources coming from the EU or companies such as Syngenta (the giant biotech/chemical multinational corporation). Go here to see how Syngenta and Monsanto work together. This year the Horticultural Institute began their first organic plot – two hectares for organic variety development.

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Photos, from left to right: 1. The Lithuanian Institute of Horticulture; 2. In the meeting in the board room, talking about SAP and learning about what happens at the Institute; 3. Dr. Rasa Karkleliene and a colleague taking samples of some of our varieties.

After learning about who and what we were up against, we gave an overview of our project and Andrew presented the slide show, which by this point was smooth as silk, and talked a little bit with the Doctors, who were extremely friendly and very interested in our project. Not one word was mentioned about our differing philosophies of plant development, and it was nice to have conversations with actual biotech scientists, because despite our obvious differences in methods (and world view), they are working for the some of the same things we are: superior vegetable varieties.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Dec 29th 2006

Early morning on Monday, December 4, we arrived at the doorstep of Christina Henatch, a pivotal player in the German Biodynamic seed breeding scene, Working at the Gut Wolfsdorf Farm outside of hamburg Germany. Christina was gracious enough to host us for several days during a very busy time of year for her. We talked about a great deal — from nematodes and flea beetles to the reality of so-called “organic hybrids” now on the market. We participated a bit in the process of selecting carrots for next year’s seed crop, and helped process some of this year’s carrot seed crop.

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We worked a great deal with Juan Richter, Christina’s knowledgable and helpful research assistant, and had what amounted to a four day seminar in the Biodynamic seed world of Germany.

Christina eagerly accepted many of the seeds that we brought, including the broccoli and beans, which are two of her main breeding crops. She was also excited to pass on some of our seed to her colleagues that work with grains, eggplant, salad greens and more. She shared with us some of her favorite carrots, broccoli, and beans, as well as a “naked barley” and some over wintering spinach, and offered us new contacts to explore in her network of Seedspeople.

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Christina is a part of the oldest and largest cooperative of Biodynamic breeders in the world, Bingenheimer. Bingenheimer is dedicated to developing and promoting open-pollinated varieties for the professional gardener/farmer that are of the calibar to compete with and surpass hybrid varieties. It is a pivotal time in the evolution of the seed business, especially considering the introduction of “organic hybrids,” and the German Seed Initiative, comprised of dozens of dedicated seed breeders like Christina, is the only organization taking a pro-active stance to ensure that market gardeners will continue to have access to increasingly high-quality open pollinated varieties.

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We hope to visit Bingenheimer later in our journey, but for now stay tuned for some photos of the Gut Wulfsdorf farm and our experiences here.

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No Comments Sarah Kleeger on Dec 8th 2006