Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Heritage Wheat: The Red Fife Community

Part One: The History of Canadian Wheat 

“History... celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the ploughed whereby we thrive; it knows the names of the king's bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly.” (Jean-Henri Fabre) 

Fishermen not Farmers
Wheat is one of the cornerstones of the Canadian economy and the Prairie culture. And yet I know next to nothing about it. Fortunately, Stephan Symko has prepared an extensive document on its history, published by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

According to From a single seed: Tracing the Marquis wheat success story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine, the earliest record of wheat cultivation in Western Canada is connected to the arrival of the Selkirk settlers in 1812.

This small group of pioneers arrived from Scotland with the help of Lord Selkirk to colonize the 160,000 square miles of territory granted to him by the Hudson's Bay Company. 

The first group of 22 settlers came to the area where the Red River meets the Assiniboine on 30 August 1812 and planted the winter wheat they had brought with them from Scotland. In the spring of 1813 they also planted spring wheat of the same origin. In the fall of that year the settlers, whose number had grown to 100, reaped a very poor harvest from that first planting. 

In a letter to Lord Selkirk dated 17 July 1813 and preserved in the National Archives in Ottawa, Miles Macdonell, the governor of the settlement, writes: "The winter wheat crop was completely wasted because it was planted too late. The same thing happened with the spring wheat, pea and English barley crops." . . .Their luck was no better the next year: the harvest of 1814 also failed. However, the persistent Scotsmen did not give up and their third attempt to grow wheat resulted in a decent harvest. . . .

The first two bad harvests had been caused by inexperience: these settlers had been fishermen in Scotland, not grain farmers. They did not have a single plough or harrow among them. They worked the soil with hoes.

Dear Spring Wheat
In the 1800s, there were no large multinationals selling a limited selection of seeds. Instead, each group of settlers brought seed stock with them from their homeland. And there were plenty of choices. According to Sharon Rempel, who has studied and grown heritage wheats for many years, there are about 200,000 varieties of wheat that can be made into bread.

One of the earliest varieties to be grown in North America was Red Fife. Its history is a romantic blend of fact, myth and legend. It was called Red Fife (or Scotch Fife) because of its colour and after David Fife, an Ontario farmer who, in 1842, was the first person to grow it in North America.

Here is one tale of how he obtained the seed:

David Fife did not send for the seed. An acquaintance, strolling along the dock at Glasgow, found men unloading wheat. He knew that Fife had emigrated to Canada, and he also knew of a mutual friend who proposed to go out to the new country presently. 

The thought struck him to take a sample of the wheat which to his observation looked very good, and send it to Fife. He had nothing in which to hold the wheat, but there was a hole in the lining of his cap. He opened the lining at the hole, filled in a handful, and afterwards wrapped it up in paper. 

Fife received the seed and planted it. It all grew but rusted badly, except five heads, all from one stalk or root. Two of these heads were eaten by oxen leaving only three heads. The great probability is that the single grain from which the three heads grew was an accidental hybrid.

Another historian notes that “Mrs Fife is entitled to share in her husband's honor, for, discovering the family cow contentedly making a meal of the growing clump of grain, she was in time to rescue a portion of it before it was too late."

The shipload of wheat in the Glasgow port came from Danzig, Poland (now Gdansk), and historians believe that Red Fife is a descendant of the Ukrainian Halychanka variety. This wheat has a long tradition in Poland. It’s referred to in folk songs as “dear spring wheat” and viewed as a symbol of household happiness and prosperity.

Research and Experimentation 
Red Fife grew well on the Prairie grasslands, and Canada swiftly became the bread basket of the world. Experimentation began to develop new and improved varieties of wheat.

In 1904, Red Fife was crossed with Hard Red Calcutta, an early-ripening Indian wheat, to produce Marquis. Marquis quickly attracted attention in every wheat-growing country. It ripened earlier than Red Fife (an important factor on the Prairies) and had a high yield.

The search would continue for bigger and better varieties of wheat, but nowadays the circle is closing as more and more people recognize the value of heritage wheat.

See also: 
Part Two: Marc Loiselle: The Reintroduction of Red Fife

My thanks to Loiselle Organic Family Farm for sponsoring my participation in the Slow Food Canada National Meeting, May 3-6, 2012.

Photo credit: Loiselle Organic Family Farm website

Quotes: From a single seed: Tracing the Marquis wheat success story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine

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2 comments:

A Canadian Foodie said...

I did some similar research a couple of years ago - talked to Sharon Remple on the phone... and finally tracked down a few people around here. Great to see the post! Very interesting!

Penny McKinlay said...

It's a fascinating story. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to meet Marc Loiselle - more on his part in the Red Fife saga in the next post.