The Fall Rye League: Making the Cut

BY CHRISTINE CLARK

Competition surrounds us. It is the driving force of the capitalist economy, it is often fuel for nationalistic, civic and institutional pride, and, from a Darwinian perspective, it is the reason for the existence of all living organisms. For Jamie Larsen, Crop Geneticist and Breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, competition takes the form of expedited evolution through the selection and controlled breeding of wheat, rye, and triticale plants. In the case of his Fall Rye Co-operative study, when a particular fall rye variety performs well, such as high winter survival rates, high grain yields, and low amounts of ergot (a fungus toxic to humans), its seeds move forward to be used in the next year’s crop, which can then be bred with other top performers. By controlling the pollination of each crop of fall rye, Larsen is able to foster the development of a rye variety with increasingly ideal qualities over time. Competition at its finest!

Following this breeding process (which can take up to 12 years) the seed selection culminates most dramatically at the yearly Prairie Recommendation Committee meetings. Here, Larsen and his colleagues present the agronomic and grain quality data of their most promising seeds for evaluation, the goal being to have them ‘supported’ for registration with Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who gives the final approval for them to enter the marketplace. In the past, seeds would be supported or rejected based on a majority vote, but these days decisions are informed largely by the Agronomic Evaluation Team’s “Merit Assessment Tool”  which scores each variety according to how a seed’s data measures up against other control varieties.

Once on the market, a fall rye variety will face a new set of competitive challenges from its new audience – the farmers of the Canadian Prairies. Even the most impressive seeds on paper must overcome the critical eye of the seasoned farmer and have enough appeal to inspire him or her to take a chance on the unfamiliar crop. Often, it is also a matter of convincing farmers of the merits of winter cropsor planting rye in general.

So, where does data visualization connect with the tumultuous world of competitive crop breeding? For myself, the Data Artist-in-Residence at the Disruptive Imaginings Data Visualization Lab at the University of Lethbridge, the connection materialized through a visual form familiar to modern sports enthusiasts – the bracket tournament.

Bracket tournaments are a pervasive type of competition in professional and league sports where all the winners of a set round of games move forward to the next round, and so on until the best team prevails through all rounds. During my research of bracket tournaments, I found a few delightful cross-overs with agriculture, most notably the reference to “planting” the “seeds,” which refers to the process of arranging the players/teams in the first set of brackets so that the strongest competitors do not meet until later in the tournament (1)(2). The practice of predicting the outcomes of bracket tournaments, known as bracketology, has become a sport in itself, taking over many offices and friendship networks during NCAA March Madness or NFL Fantasy Football. Since their domination of the sporting world, bracket tournaments have also become popular in many other domains, like moviesmusicbookspublic radio, and now… fall rye!

FallRyeBrackets-graphic

The Fall Rye League data visualization will be shown on April 20th at 2PM at the University of Lethbridge. Incorporating interactive paint, a micro-controller, and lights, the multimedia project presents the statistical champion of Jamie Larsen’s Fall Rye 2013 – 2014 Cooperative study through a touchable cork interface. Location TBA.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seed_(sports)
(2) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/seed