In answer to soaring public demand, a Suffolk-based cooperative of five independent farmers have pooled their resources to fund their own hybrid crop development project. Aiming to take on the big commercial breeders, the new variety should boost production in the face of extremely challenging conditions.
Amid serious concerns that the forecasted imminent increase in demand for pulp-based products cannot be met through current crop varieties and farming practices, the collective has risen to this unprecedented challenge via agricultural research.
Arable farmer William. C. Lavattry, one of the founding members of the collective, is a BASIS-qualified agronomist and has long been interested in crop evolution.
According to Mr Lavattry: “Considering the extremely long evolution of crops, modern plant breeding has only recently been practiced, mainly after the formulation of Mendel’s Laws of Heredity in 1865. Mendel’s early genetic studies and his resulting theories about inheritance and trait segregation paved the way for targeted crossing between parental genotypes, a practice that underpins modern crop improvement. However, in order to be able to meet the increasing demand for cotton and pulp-based products, rates of genetic improvement must be increased substantially.”
One of the most important traits that plant breeders aim to improve is ‘yield’, and this is certainly the key element that the co-op is looking to push out. Mr Lavattry’s number two, Bob Floater, further explains: “Depending on the species this can be ‘grain yield’, ‘total biomass’ or ‘total amount of ply per area harvested. Yield represents a highly quantitative trait, which means that it is determined by numerous factors, including the interplay of many underlying genes with typically small effects, the environmental conditions under which the plants are grown and the management practices applied. In most circumstances, there is a strong interaction among these three factors, which unrolls into a high degree of complexity at the level of trait expression.”
On a practical level, all hybrid crop varieties are gaining ground, but this particular hybrid will be especially welcomed with open arms by just about every retailer and consumer alike. With a high level of vigour to enable it to grow away from disease, the only real weak spot in the engineered crop variety is its poor response to damp conditions. Thriving in dry ground, even a small amount of moisture causes the yield to virtually disintegrate, which poses something of a problem when it comes to irrigation techniques. It’s recommended by Mr Lavattry that the crops are grown under glass, and no foliar sprays are to be used to ensure the ear rolls are not compromised.
In on-farm trials, it should be noted that a total of 4,500 rolls/ha were harvested under optimum growing conditions – the equivalent of 250 18-packs as sold in retailers. Under current projected prices of £5.99 per 18-pack, this equates to £1,497.50/ha gross as long as the crop is stored correctly to ensure optimum softness. One thing can certainly be guaranteed – demand is certainly going to outstrip supply.