Faba beans are unique in many ways. They have double the protein of wheat and triple the amount found in rice. They contain beneficial amino acids, B-vitamis and micronutrients, plus they benefit the soil. Like others in the pulse family, Faba beans can pull nitrogen from the air for use by the plant. Their sweet, strong sent is attractive to pollinators and they are also valued as a cover crop.
The major draw back, however, is that the typical faba bean isn’t tolerant to cold weather. Growers wishing to use them as cover crops must plant them in the spring, leavening fields unprotected during the winter months.
To address these issues Jinguo Hu, a research leader with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and a team from Washington State University have been looking for a germplasm line that can stand up to cold conditions. They began with 175 seeds from around the globe. Now, after six years of selection, the team has four varieties hardy to zone 6b.
“Diversity is the base of selection,” Hu says of the research process. “We planted many different varieties together and allowed the natural gene flow to maximize the gene combinations for selection,” Hu says. “We didn’t isolate the different plants. Pollinators like bumble bees simply cross-pollinated the plants and helped these new lines develop.”
This process of finding beneficial traits offers several benefits, including experience that may come in useful when breeding new plants to be heat or drought tolerant in the face of climate change.
“The next step is to get growers and companies interested in our work,” he says. “I’ve starting working with some in Washington and even in California. Experimental seed samples have been sent to requesters from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oregon, Montana, Missouri, Nebraska, and Virginia for grow-out observation trials. The faba bean definitely has a place in the national market.”
You can read more about Hu’s work in the Journal of Plant Registrations.