Plantbreeding at Svalöf:
Instruments, Registers, Fieldwork.

Staffan Müller-Wille

The experimental breeding station at Svalöv was installed from resources of the Swedish Seed Association, founded by private entrepreneurs, state officials, and agricultural co-operatives in 1886. The motivation for its foundation was that land reform and mechanisation had created surpluses in agriculture that made export economically interesting for the first time in Swedish history. However, the English and German cultivars that had been imported to Sweden for their high returns did not endure its winter very well – in contrast to the traditionally cultivated, but less yielding, so-called 'country sorts' of Sweden. The expressed concern of the Swedish Seed Association was therefore to test the viability of foreign seed material under the climatic conditions of Sweden, to raise its viability, if necessary, by breeding, and to distribute the material thus tested and ameliorated to the market.

In accordance with this practical orientation a German agricultural engineer, Thomas Bruun von Neergaard, was employed already in 1886. Neergard did not publish on his work, but an impression of his procedures can be gained from his annual reports to the Association and from descriptions of Nils Hjalmar Nilsson (1856 - 1925), who succeeded him as the experimental station's director in 1890. The breeding method Neergard used is known as 'mass selection' and consisted in collecting the best plants, ears, or seeds from each harvest and to sow them out collectively for next year's harvest (Olsson 1993, Roll-Hansen 1990, 104-106). The procedure focuses directly on the quality that is aspired (e.g. large grains) and its effectiveness seems to be intuitively evident. The 'invisible hand' that operates here is that of the breeder himself, as it had been active since ages, and the knowledge it is based upon seems largely to be implicit. A closer look at Neergard's method reveals why it still could claim to be 'scientific' or 'systematic', a claim that was raised from its very onset.

Reference: Müller-Wille, Staffan. 2008. Plantbreeding at Svalöf: Instruments, Registers, Fieldwork. The Virtual Laboratory (ISSN 1866-4784),