Seed World



Gordon Rowland is honoured for his decades of work in breeding successful, widely-grown flax varieties.

Flax is often overlooked in lists of the top crops in Western Canada, but thanks in large part to the decades of breeding work done by Gordon Rowland at the Crop Development Centre of the University of Saskatchewan, it’s a mainstay in many Saskatchewan and Manitoba farmers’ crop rotations.

Canada is the world’s top flax producer and exporter—as Rowland says, “It is well-adapted to Canadian conditions.” However, when he began his breeding program almost 40 years ago, flax was mainly grown only in southern Manitoba.

“Flax has been sort of an orphan crop over the years,” says Rowland. It could be said that he “adopted” it when he first began breeding better-adapted varieties in 1974, just two years after the CDC opened with the mandate to develop new crops and improve existing crops to lessen Saskatchewan farmers’ dependence on wheat production.

In plant breeding there are no overnight successes; instead, years of patient work are required to develop and test new varieties. But over the past 20 years, more and more farmers have planted the many varieties that Rowland has bred, and now over 80 per cent of the flax grown in western Canada is comprised of these varieties.

Rowland’s long-term success in flax breeding has been recognized. He is the recipient of the 2011 Canadian Plant Breeding and Genetics Award, sponsored by the Canadian Seed Trade Association and Germination magazine.

In his letter of support for Rowland’s award nomination, Allen Kuhlmann, vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission, states, “Gordon is an innovator and farmer at heart—one only needs to review his career to feel the passion he has displayed over the years. He is genuinely concerned about industry sustainability and the industry has enjoyed economic growth thanks to Gordon’s variety development.”

Now professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan, Rowland retired last December, but continues to lead an international team of researchers in the Total Utilization Flax Genomics (TUFGEN) project, a four-year $12 million project aimed at determining the DNA sequence of the entire flax genome. Once this is established, results from this genomics research will be used to improve flax breeding and, ultimately, the usefulness of flax itself as a dual-purpose crop providing top-quality seeds and straw.


Plant Research in His Blood
When Rowland was hired in 1972 as one of the first six research scientists employed at the CDC, he already had years of insight into plant breeding thanks to his family background. Rowland’s father was a technician who worked on seed-borne diseases at the federal agricultural research station on the University of Manitoba campus (now Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Cereal Research Centre), and two of his uncles graduated from the university’s agricultural science faculty.

Rowland recalls how he used to accompany his father to work and see the plant breeding efforts underway at what was then called the Rust Lab, in reference to work being done there to combat wheat rust. “I had a very close association with agriculture from a very early age,” he says.

In high school, his interest in genetics was piqued after working on a science project, then touring the U of M’s Plant Science department. “That gave me a reason to study agriculture and genetics,” he says.

He received his honours degree in Plant Science, and his graduate studies focussed on cytogenetics in wheat. He earned his doctorate in 1972.

His original assignment at the CDC was to develop special crops to offer farmers more production options. At that time, half of Saskatchewan’s arable land—50 million acres—was in summer fallow each year. He began work on faba beans as part of the research into developing pulse crops, but his focus changed after the Flax Growers of Western Canada requested that flax breeding be added to the CDC’s roster.

Rowland says he contacted Ed Kenaschuk at the federal agricultural research station in Morden, Man., because about three-quarters of Canada’s total flax production was then growing in the Red River Valley. He realized that he needed to breed varieties better suited to cultivation in Saskatchewan’s drier, cooler, and somewhat shorter growing season.

Vimy, a large-seeded variety well-suited for food use, was released in 1986, and since then it has become one of the most popular varieties for western Canadian flax production. Rowland says an extremely dry growing session in 1988 proved to farmers that Vimy could withstand severe conditions better than other varieties, and this helped it gain popularity.

Since that time, Rowland and his team have released six more cultivars, with CDC Bethune becoming the most popular variety in western Canada. Jim Downey, research and development manager for SeCan, wrote in his letter of support for Rowland’s nomination, “The Canadian Grain Commission harvest survey data indicates that CDC Bethune occupies close to 60 per cent of the flax acres in Western Canada and the second most popular variety is another variety from Dr. Rowland’s program called Vimy. The dominance of Dr. Rowland’s flax varieties is a remarkable achievement for any plant breeder.”

Future of Flax Looks Bright
The commercial uses of flax began to change in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s as its unique nutritional qualities became known. Flax oil contains Omega-3 fatty acid, which is linked to a reduction in harmful blood cholesterol levels. Laying hens and pigs are now fed flaxseed to increase the Omega-3 content in their eggs and pork. Rowland says Red River cereal was once the only food product on Canadian grocery shelves that contained flaxseed, but now the seed is a common ingredient in baked goods.

“I think the value of flax will continue to move higher because there’s not another crop that can compete in nutraceutical value,” he says.

One of the challenges being addressed in the TUFGEN project is finding a way to make flax straw more easily managed by farmers. With the onus on “green” manufacturing, Rowland says flax fibre offers an environmentally sound option for replacing fibreglass in some products, and flax oil can replace petro-chemicals.

“Flax is well-positioned to be part of a green economy, and it is also uniquely adapted to growing conditions in Western Canada,” Rowland says. He looks forward to continuing to play an important role in making flax a Prairie success story.

A Career Snapshot

Highlights from Dr. Gordon Rowland’s 40-year career:
• Received Ph.D. in Plant Sciences from the University of Manitoba (1972)
• Worked as a plant breeder at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (1972-2010)

Release of:
Outlook fababean (1981)
Vimy flax (1986)
CDC Bethune flax (1998)
CDC Sorrel flax (2005)
• Board member of the Flax Council of Canada (1984-2010)
• Director of the Crop Development Centre (1994-1999)
• Board member of the Canada/Saskatchewan Agri-Food Innovation Fund (1995-2003)
• Ag-West Biotech Inc. Distinguished Scientist Award (1998)
• Corporate-Higher Education-Hewlett Packard (Canada) Award (1999)
• Honourary Life Membership, Saskatchewan Seed Growers’ Association (1999)
• Saskatchewan Institute of Agrologists “Distinguished Agrologist Award” (2002)
• Named the W.J. White chair in Plant Sciences (Jan. 1, 2003-Dec. 31, 2006)
• Honourary Life Membership, Canadian Seed Growers’ Association (2003)
• TUFGEN—Co-lead of this $12 million Genome Canada project (2009-2013)

Andrea Geary