The Bluegrass Blog

Heritage Barley Trials at Bluegrass Farm

Posted on October 11, 2014

In 2014, we are working with the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security (BFICSS) to save seed of heritage grain crops. The goal of this organization is to help support and build a Canadian seed system that provides a solid foundation for food security, climate resilience, and community well-being.

This year, we are growing 12 varieties of heritage barley, 1 variety of winter wheat, 1 variety of fall rye, and 1 variety of buckwheat. We received barley and rye seed from Plant Gene Resources of Canada (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) which has approximately 50,000 varieties of barley in stock. After some research, I selected barley varieties that were bred and trialed in Ottawa, Guelph and Montreal almost one hundred years ago. My theory is that older barley varieties that were bred and trialed locally back during ‘organic’ farming will make suitable barley varieties going forward.

Extensive cultivation, intensive breeding and selection have resulted in thousands of commercial varieties of barley. Heirloom or heritage varieties are defined as varieties that were introduced in North America before the 1960’s. They can also be known as landraces or traditional varieties. These traditional varieties are a valuable genetic resource and their loss results in a global biodiversity issue.


The two varieties of barley that first became established in Ontario were Chevallier and Thorpe from the UK in the 1800’s.  These were the barley varieties that were behind the barley days boom that hit Prince Edward County 1860-1890 where barley accounted for a third of arable land in production in Prince Edward County. See a short video here.

There was some regional selection of barley varieties in the early 1900’s and then grain production, research and testing moved to the prairie provinces of Canada.  However, in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s regional grain trials were undertaken in Guelph, Ottawa and Montreal. However, once grain production moved to the prairie provinces, so did plant breeding and trials. Over the past sixty years, barley cultivars have been heavily bred and have existed under a chemical fertilizer and herbicide regime. This has resulted in shallow roots to retrieve nutrients at the soil surface and short plants that have been bred for yield at the expense of weed pressure.

Currently, there are few grain producers producing barley in Ontario, and if they are, they are growing varieties that originated in western Canada.   If transitioning to organic production is to be realized, then we need to evaluate the pre 1960’s varieties for regional adaptation.

Next time I’ll discuss more about our varieties and how they fared this year.