People sometimes ask me what personality traits we’re looking for in our members. This is the way I see it: we’re looking for skilled and sensitive growers who can, at a moment’s notice, turn into heartless, cold-blooded killers.
Here’s the paradox: we want to keep as many oca varieties alive as we possibly can, before we ruthlessly and systematically murder the vast majority of them. Plant breeding is, after all, mostly horticultural homicide. Success for us is to churn out thousands of new oca varieties and then pit them against one another in gladiatorial combat, net and trident versus sword and shield. Our job is to act like the emperor – we’ll salute our champions and grant them their freedom; losers will be thrown to the lions, or in the case of ocas, straight into the pot.
I use the word ‘systematically’ advisedly. Our job is to be the ultimate arbiter of any variety’s survival; we should not allow random acts of violence to snuff out the lives of the unfortunate ocas in our care. Letting your ocas get eaten by voles, deer, pheasants or any number of other critters does nothing to promote our efforts – a great oca variety is just as likely to be destroyed as a mediocre one. Protect and survive, to die another day.
And when I say thousands, I mean thousands and thousands. Take the example of Rheinhold Von Sengbusch, who developed the first sweet lupin varieties back in the1920s. He was looking for non-shattering pods and low alkaloid content in the seeds. In order to achieve his aims, he sowed, over a number of years, millions of lupins. Eventually favourable mutations turned up and bingo, a whole new crop was created, one that is now of world importance. So plant breeding is a numbers game. If Rheinhold can do it, so can we. Great new day-neutral, high yielding, disease resistant ocas are waiting to be developed.
If all the talk of callous elimination offends your sensibilities, think of it this way: we’re panning for precious metals. Like Darling Clementine’s dad, a 49er in the California Gold Rush, we’re sifting through mounds of germplasm in the hope of finding those elusive nuggets and flakes that will transform oca’s fortunes, if not our own.
Luckily, oca seed production is not impossible in the right climates. Even with my singularly rudimentary facilities, I managed to harvest sufficient seed to produce, last year at least, over one thousand oca varieties, each one genetically unique. My achievements are not remarkable: what I have done, you can do too. The more of us who commit to improving oca through mass selection, the faster we’ll make progress. As the great plant explorer Nikolay Vavilov put it: “time is short, we must hurry!”
Probably one in a hundred of my offspring will be as good as the best varieties currently available; maybe one of the thousand will be outstanding. So it’s really like the lottery, but the odds are better and there’s a lot more sustenance in a dud oca than a losing ticket. It could be you.
In conclusion, I have before me a vision of the realm of the Guild of Oca Breeders. This land is your land, this land is my land: democracy and sharing for the members and downtrodden, welly-booted dictatorship for the ocas. Long Live the Guild, Long Live the Guild!
Owen Glyn Smith has been breeding ocas since 2009 and maybe needs a break. This blog is all about ocas but his interests are comprehensive and he is also pursuing breeding experiments in such diverse plants as Apios americana, Psophocarpus lancifolius and Rocotos to mention just three. Catch up with him on his blog Radix or the Facebook group Radix Root Crops.