Kale Breeding Workshop

Posted on Thursday, 13 July 2017 under BC Seeds

Today we were happy to host Laurie McKenzie of the Organic Seed Alliance for our Kale Breeding Workshop in Duncan on Vancouver Island. We had a group of 18 eager and budding plant breeders ready to absorb all Laurie had to offer.

This workshop was focused on kale as it is a popular crop here on the coast and has both fresh market and seed production capacities in our coastal climate. While kale is already popular at farmers markets, especially as a winter crop, it holds a lot of potential as a seed crop here in BC.

We were focused on a lacinato-like variety called Dazzling Blue, bred by Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seeds. We chose this variety after it demonstrated good overwintering capabilities this past winter which was particularly cold in coastal BC. It is also an attractive plant with many individuals showing a striking purple stem and a unique blue-green leaf colour. This kale came out of a backcross between a ‘Rainbow Lacinato’ variant with its ‘WGS Lacinato’ ancestor.

The morning of the workshop was spent in the classroom as Laurie reviewed some basic genetics relevant to plant breeding. She then went over what a breeding plan will look like and the many different ways it could play out. She also stressed the importance of accepting breeding as an iterative process – stating you will know where you want to grow with your breeding project when you get there!

Laurie focused on two breeding approaches – mass selection and family selection.

For mass selection breeding you remove all the plants you do not want in your population and save just the plants you want. You let the plants flower and pollinate with each, then mix all the seed, plant it out again, and continue the process. This is an easy method which maintains genetic diversity in the population and requires little record keeping; but results in less uniformity and does not allow the crop to realize its maximum genetic potential.

For family selection, once – you have selected the crops you want to save seed from, you keep the seed from each plant separate and plant them out in their own plots the following year. For selection, you then remove the families you don’t like as well as the individual plants you do not like within the families you are keeping. This method allows you to make faster progress with breeding goals and is better for polygenic traits; however, it is more time consuming and require more record keeping.

One of the main take home messages with considering these methods is you need to choose the one that is going to work best for you – based on your time, resources, and desired outcomes.

For the afternoon session we moved into the field to take a look at some Dazzling Blue kale and other crops. Here, we got to see the many different characteristics of Dazzling Blue and get more familiar with it. It is important to build a relationship with the crop you are working with in order to make good selection decisions.

As an exercise, the group walked through the kale plants and selected the individuals they liked the most – in essence, their ideal Dazzling Blue plant. This was a good exercise to help determine what one’s breeding objectives could be with a crop like kale. Luckily, we will actually be able to turn this exercise into a community breeding project. Prior to the workshop we sent out Dazzling Blue kale seed to workshop registrants for them to plant out at home and start selection. Many of them have already planted it out while others took seed at the workshop to plant when they get home. So all workshop participants will have a Dazzling Blue population to work with on their own farms

This is a method of breeding Laurie referred to as Divergent-Convergent breeding, where multiple farms grow out a crop, do selection, then pool the seed from the different farms to distribute and plant out again on multiple farms the following season. Each of the farms should select plants for the same criteria to make this method more effective. Through the above-mentioned exercise, we could identify the type of plant we were looking for as an “ideal” and thus determine our selection criteria. The preferred plant had nice purple stems, a mild savoy texture to the leaves, and a semi-upright stature with good spacing between the leaves.


For the first few seasons, growers will do mass selection, simple letting all the plants cross pollinate. In the first season growers will only remove the plants they do not like before they start selecting for what they do like. This gives them a chance to better get to know the crop. Then after one or two seasons of this mass selection with minimal roguing, growers would shift to family selection, where seed from each individual plant that is selected is kept separate and planted out in separate plots. A good rule of thumb, according to Laurie, is to choose more families and grow a smaller plot size rather than choose less families with a larger plot size.

To help keep this process in motion, we at FarmFolk CityFolk, as seed program coordinators, can check in regularly with growers to answer questions they may have and keep them connected with each other. After all, one of the goals of all the work we do is engagement and relationship building.

This workshop was one of the many efforts we are putting into movement building around local organic vegetable seed production here in BC through the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security. Every workshop we host brings out participants old and new and expands and strengthens our seed grower network. These events are also great times for farmers to network with each other – a task that can be quite difficult during the busy farming season!

Here is a .pdf of the presentation from Laurie: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B15Lk7XV89NXcU95WFBoZW1aUE0/view

A special thanks to the BC Ministry of Agriculture for funding support to host this workshop and to Cowichan Green Community for hosting us in Duncan.