Friday, March 22, 2024

Barley harvest shows promise for summer trials

Interior Alaska is still under its winter blanket of snow, but inside the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station greenhouses on the University of Alaska Fairbanks Troth Yeddha’ campus, it’s harvest time.

Jakir Hasan, a research assistant professor for small grain crops breeding, gathered barley seeds from around the world — Canada, Russia, Egypt, Libya, Finland and France, among many others. He also included seeds from Sunshine barley, a hulless variety developed at AFES and released commercially in 2009. From these, he created about 5,000 new strains of barley, which he planted in the greenhouse in mid-December.

His goal, he said, is to create strains of barley that Alaska farmers can grow for food and for animal feed, as well as to look for a strain of malting barley for local distilleries. “If we can provide the barley from our program, that’s a win-win both for Alaska barley and the Institute,” Hasan said.

In mid-March, the greenhouse is full of barley of varying heights and stages of maturity. Some plants are tall, green and strong with full heads of seed. Others are yellowing and stunted with small seedheads.

Hasan said he is focused on developing barley strains with traits such as a high grain yield and a strong stem to keep the plant standing upright. In addition, Hasan is looking for barley that will mature in the same window as Sunshine barley, which is about 70 days.

One of the promising strains in the greenhouse is a combination of Russian and Sunshine barleys. It is producing 80-100 seeds per head, well above the standard 40-60 seeds. It matured in 70-72 days, as well. He is also looking for plants that can grow taller than Sunshine, which is only about 2 feet tall, without their stems bending or breaking. About 3 feet is an ideal height, he said.

Early in the process, he weeded out the plants that simply did not thrive or seemed susceptible to disease. From the plants that are left, he will harvest the seeds from the best 400 lines and plant them in test plots this summer in Fairbanks. He will also plant some strains in Delta Junction. Each plot will consist of the seeds from a single head of barley.

While the greenhouse can showcase promising traits, he said, he won’t know if a strain is successful until it is grown in the field, with wind, rain and the Interior’s long days of sunlight factored in.

He will take the best 40 strains from the 2024 trials, plant them this winter and repeat the process until he has winnowed out the best three or four strains that look promising for commercial growers. Overall, he is two years into a process that he predicts will take no more than 10 years maximum from seed crosses to new varieties arriving in the hands of farmers.

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