From a single seed - Tracing the Marquis wheat success story in Canada to its roots in Ukraine (2 of 11)


This published account would not have been possible without the faith and perseverance of Julia Symko, who never lost sight of her dream to see her husband's work made public.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada would like to thank Victor Spassov of VSES Communications for the care he exercised in translating and editing Mr. Symko's unpublished first draft. Mr. Spassov's personal interest in checking facts, ensuring historical perspective, and presenting the material in words that properly convey the respect Mr. Symko felt for Canada's pioneering spirit was instrumental in turning Stephan Symko's unfinished notes into a publishable story. Thanks are also due to George Fedak, cereal cytogenetics specialist at the Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre on the Central Experimental Farm. Dr. Fedak, who early in his career was an associate of Stephan Symko's, answered many technical questions during the production of this material and helped find some of the old photographs that illustrate this work.


by Dr. George Fedak

Stephan Symko was born in Dakniv, Western Ukraine (Halychyna) in 1911. He studied agricultural science at the University of Louvain, Belgium, graduating in 1936. Back in Ukraine he married Julia Zuk and became the chief agricultural scientist in his native province of Halychyna (Galicia). He specialized in research on new varieties of cereals, especially wheat and rye, continuing his work even after the German occupation of Ukraine. After the war he left Ukraine with his wife and four children and eventually resettled in Canada. In 1949 he began a career at Agriculture Canada's Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, where he worked in cereal breeding and research until he retired in 1976.

He focussed on interspecific and tetraploid barley, winter barley, and winter triticale, creating an abundance of novel genetic stocks. Perhaps his most noteworthy achievement was in interspecific barley, for which he developed new crossing procedures to produce haploid progeny. His work remains widely recognized. The procedures he pioneered were adopted and expanded at the University of Guelph to the point that doubled haploids in barley have become standard tools for genetic studies and barley breeding programs world wide.

This monograph is a very personal testament of Mr. Symko's strong convictions about the significance and impact of Ukrainian wheats on Canadian agriculture. It was during his years as a research biologist at Agriculture Canada that he became convinced of the contribution that these wheats had made, not only in Canada, but around the world . He believed that plant breeders, over time, skillfully incorporated the excellent baking qualities of Ukrainian wheat into wheats with early-maturing characteristics to produce high-quality new varieties around the world. As this fact was not well known in world plant-breeding circles, Mr. Symko set out to document it with the assistance of a 1976 Canada Council research grant. He began with the Red Fife story, the annals of Canadian spring wheat breeding, and the story of the settlement and development of Western Canada. He pursued this story with visionary zeal for 10 years, eventually assembling a final manuscript of some 2,000 pages of information that spanned the world, written in Ukrainian, from some 1,000 references. This translated monograph is therefore just a portion of the total exercise.

The author passed away in 1992 without seeing his work published. This Internet publication will do justice to his efforts. It is a reminder of a forgotten heritage -- the importance of Red Fife wheat and its successors, including Marquis and many later varieties, to Canada's agriculture and especially the development of the West. It is also a testament to the work of Canada's Experimental Farm System and the work of its pioneer scientists.


Where did agriculture and the cultivation of wheat first begin?

There is a great deal of international literature on how agriculture was first established. There is even more on the appearance of the first seeds, the development of wheat and its origins. But the question never has been answered definitively.

Much of the West European literature points to ancient Mesopotamia as the place where the birth of civilization on Earth took place. However, I believe the idea that agriculture and civilization arose in the valley of the Euphrates is based on speculation. There are other views: for example, Matthäus Much (1, pages 195-227) suggests our most important cultivated plants -- particularly cereals such as wheat, barley and millet -- grew first in their wild form in Europe. He suggests that during the Ice Age, the European climate was rainy and foggy, with the atmosphere full of moisture both winter and summer. (2, page 682) In such a climate it would have been possible for grass and the ancestors of the cereals to appear.

Wheat is one of the world's most ancient cultivated plants. Various archaeological excavations in Europe and Ukraine have provided new evidence on the early origins of agriculture. For example, Ukrainian archaeologist V. V. Khvoiko discovered a prehistoric settlement of grain growers who grew wheat, millet and rye in Trypillya, a village near Kyiv. (3A, pages 769, 773, 789, 811; 3B pages 1-2; 3C, pages 281-309) The discovery of this so-called "Trypillya culture" suggests that Ukraine has played an important part in the early history of wheat.

For thousands of years, grain production has been one of the main fields of agriculture in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Wheat has played a very important role in Ukrainian grain production. The Transcaucasus region is especially rich in grain and wheat varieties. Scientists of the former Soviet Union recorded numerous grain varieties there which are found nowhere else in the world. A few varieties of wild wheat can still be found in Ukraine, but generally they are more numerous in neighbouring areas. This suggests that the cultivation of wheat was more advanced in Ukraine, where grain growers had removed wild varieties from their fields long ago.

I believe that wheat was grown on the territory of modern Ukraine even at the time of the Trypillya culture. Over time it would have been exported to neighbouring countries. There is evidence, for example, that Ukrainian wheat reached Greece in the third century A.D. Excavations in 1945 near the city of Kaminets-Podilsky in Luka-Vrublevetska, Ukraine, found that wheat cultivation there had been widespread during the third and fourth centuries A.D.

It is the discovery of the Trypillya culture, however, that provides the earliest and most concrete proof that the Trypillya tribes were settled grain growers with a highly developed agriculture who grew wheat, millet, and rye. The reason for the development of this wheat culture is best explained in biological and agricultural terms.

Only a favourable climate can foster the creation of fertile soil. Biochemistry tells us that the establishment of fertile soil takes many millions of years. Some scientists believe that the most fertile soils, like the Ukrainian black soils (chernozems), are also the oldest. Given the geological structure of Ukraine, its fertile land and suitable climate, I suggest that Ukraine was the birthplace of the first cereal ancestors. Over time new plants with better nutritive qualities evolved through natural selection. Eventually various cereals appeared, including wheat.

Early History of Wheat

The agricultural literature features various works in different languages on the origins of wheat. The most credible assumption is that people began to use wheat for food in prehistoric times, beginning at least 15,000 years B.C.

Wheat as we know it in the millennia of this era is not the same as it was at the very beginning. The genetics of wheat show that its development is very complex. Today's grain has developed from three naturally occurring groups of wheat. Through natural crossings, mutations, and natural selection these have evolved into all the many varieties of wheat grown worldwide.

Of all cultivated plants, wheat has been the most important food product for humankind. Agriculture took many centuries to develop, and its early history is written not on parchment but on the memory of the creative human mind. This acquired knowledge was transferred to future generations through oral retelling. I believe this knowledge may well have been transmitted to us today from the world's first wheat farmers in Ukraine.

This is because the first Ukrainian grain growers had the major advantage of climate. Eventually, they would have started producing more than enough grain for their own use and exchanged the surplus for other food products from other tribes. Ukraine remains an agricultural centre today. Ukrainian grain seed has spread not only to neighbouring but also to more distant countries, where the cultivation of grain has expanded as a result.

History of Ukrainian Wheat

The history of plant cultivation on the territory of ancient Ukraine tells us that it was the source of a wide range and many ancient forms of a variety of food plants, especially cereals like wheat, rye, barley, millet, buckwheat and flax. Most significantly, early Ukrainian grain farmers practised breeding and selection of cultivated cereals, so that over time, their knowledge of cereal quality deepened and improved. Indeed, the cereals and wheat they produced first were probably adopted by both neighbouring and more distant countries, like Greece, Egypt and Rome.

The cultivation of wheat in Ukraine is mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus. The fourth book of his History deals with Scythia, which includes the territory of today's Ukraine. Recording the knowledge current at the time, he writes that some Scythians practised agriculture. They could well have been ancestors of today's Slavs.

Herodotus records that wheat was an important commodity exported from the Scythian region to Greece: "In the time of Demosthenes, 400,000 medimnes (about 236 hecalitres or 651,000 bushels) of wheat were shipped from Bosphorus to the Greek port of Pyraeus every year."

"During the reign of the Emperor Leocon I (387 - 347 B.C.), the colony of Theodosia sent so much wheat to Athens that it not only provided for the whole Attica but made it possible to sell extra for 15 silver talents. Athens mainly paid for grain with precious metals, which allowed the Byzantine emperors to mint their own coin and hire Greek mercenaries. They also paid with decorated ceramics and other luxury products for household and personal use." Herodotus also records that the Persian king Xerxes met Pontian ships carrying wheat to the island of Aegina and the Peloponnesian peninsula while crossing the Hellespont. Much of this wheat was probably grown in what is now Ukraine.

He also describes trade routes: one went from Scythia (Ukraine) toward Asia in a northeasterly direction across the Urals, then due east to the banks of the Irtysh River, where some of the "emperor's" Scythians lived, then across the Altai and Tien Shan mountain ranges to Central Asia.

Another route connected India to the Black Sea region by way of modern Afghanistan, across the Hindu Kush mountain range to the Oksu (Amu Darya) River valley, and across the Caspian Sea and Sarmathian steppes to "Tanais" (the Don River). This route is important to the history of plant origins as some scientists, including N. V. Vavilov and others, believe that more wheat varieties are to be found in Afghanistan than anywhere else in the world. Because of this they speculate that the cultivation of wheat originated there.

However, this diversity of wheat in Afghanistan could have been transported there in antiquity from Ukraine by the same trading route. Furthermore these ancient wheats have been used by Afghani farmers without any selection or further development from that time until now. Meanwhile the Scythian farmers gradually improved their wheat varieties by using their own selection methods and getting rid of less useful varieties. In Ukraine, therefore, wheat cultivation developed, whereas in Afganistan it remained static. I believe Ukrainian grain was introduced into new areas as populations grew and trade between tribes and nations expanded by land and sea.

Ukrainian traders would have travelled thousands of kilometres to the far ends of the then-known world. In addition Phoenicia, a well developed, economically strong nation on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, traded extensively along the entire Mediterranean coast. Phoenician traders would have bought wheat from the territory of ancient Ukraine, or Scythia, and sold it to other nations.

These nations sometimes fought each other. In about 500 B.C. Greece defeated Phoenicia but eventually was supplanted by Rome as the dominant economic power in the Mediterranean region. One effect of these wars was to disseminate plants across the new victorious empires. For example, the military expeditions of Alexander of Macedon through Persia and Asia Minor to India made the exchange of plants between those countries possible.

The territory of Ukraine became a rich centre for the reproduction and improvement of cereals because of its favourable climate and rich soil. Trading towns appeared along Ukraine's Black Sea coast to market the surplus grain. They were populated mostly by Greek colonists who traded Ukrainian wheat to the Mediterranean countries.

Of course, in spite of the archaeological evidence, not all researchers agree with the theory of the Scythian-Ukrainian origin of wheat. However, there is also historical evidence that the area of Ukraine was known as the "bread basket" of the region and that grain growers there were known to have a high level of agricultural expertise. I believe wheat cultivation developed in Ukraine for other, perhaps even more important reasons.

Agricultural expertise has its own prerequisites. Grain growers cannot be nomads. They must have not only a superior knowledge of the fields but also a love of working those fields. This love grows with the success of their work. With each harvest, grain growers acquire more professional experience, learn the value of the fruits of their land and try to improve their quality. They learn about the local climate and its signs. Their daily work with nature forces them to develop logical thinking to manage their tasks and improve their lives. All this experience creates not only a strong farming culture but also a great love for the land. This love makes the farmers loyal to their country and makes them want to protect it.

If these characteristics of the farmer hold true, the ancient inhabitants of Ukraine would have shared them. The ancient forefathers of the Trypillya culture who lived in Ukraine would have transferred their agricultural knowledge faithfully to their descendants. They had come to that land, with its wonderful rich black soil, the chernozem, and stayed to till it, cherish it, and water it with their sweat. When invaders attacked, they fought for it, even gave their lives for it. Perhaps this is why Ukrainian grain is best.

Among cultivated plants, wheat is considered to be the queen of cereals -- the most important food for people. The word "wheat" means many different things to different people.

For the botanist, wheat is simply a grass.

For the chemist, it is a series of organic chemical formulas.

For the geneticist, it is an interesting organism which demonstrates many laws of heredity.

For the farmer, it is a cash crop.

For the merchant, it means business growth.

For the miller, it means groats, bran and many kinds of milled products.

For the baker, it means flour and the baking of bread.

For the labourer, it means work.

For the politician, where to buy or sell wheat is a difficult problem to solve.

For the religious, it is a symbol of plenty.

For the photographer and artist, it is a unique form of still life.

For the statesman and strategist, it is a powerful weapon of war.

For the biologist, it is solar energy made into grain through photosynthesis.

For millions of people all over the world, it means life and food.

For Ukrainians, wheat (pshenyitsa) is the most important grain. They treat it with respect and esteem because their lives have always been so intimately connected to it. I do not know of any other nation that mentions wheat in their folk songs as often: I know of more than 83 that mention pshenyitsa. Wheat also figures prominently in Ukrainian poetry and literature.

Ukrainian wheat is the world's oldest wheat. The long-established agricultural tradition and varietal selection practised by Ukrainian grain growers over the millennia created an important place for wheat in their lives and established the high quality standard for Ukrainian crops in their competition with various natural diseases. Most important, Ukrainian wheat flour has set the world standard for bread quality and taste.

This can be explained as a mere coincidence of suitable climate and fertile soil. However, this is only indirectly true, as genetic studies show that all the features of Ukrainian wheat are hereditary. They are encoded in the gene set of the chromosomes in the nucleus of the wheat cell. These genes are transferred from generation to generation. When other wheat varieties are crossed with Ukrainian ones, the Ukrainian wheat gene characteristics become dominant in the new hybrids.

Why are these facts not better known? Because Ukraine has been an occupied country for much of its recent history. When Eastern Ukraine was occupied by Russia and Western Ukraine by Austria, and before that when all of Ukraine was governed by Poland, Ukrainian wheat exported abroad was registered under the name of the occupying country. Indeed it was only rarely that one could find out from the literature that this wheat was Ukrainian -- in most cases the country of origin was given as Russia, Austria, or Poland, although there were often records of the town, research station or Black Sea port from which it had originated. Wheat exported from Western Ukraine, for example, was often listed as the one "from Halychyna" (Galicia).

In addition, some wheat exported from Ukraine was used for seed and planted on individual farms without any registration. If the farm achieved success using it, or it had a high yield, often a neighbour would try to grow it at his farm and name the "new wheat" after the person from whom he had bought it.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the cultivation of grain in Western Europe and the New World (America and Australia) was in its infancy. Then the population of Europe began to grow faster. There were new discoveries in physics, chemistry, biology, and especially genetics. The secrets of the invisible world were being revealed because of improvements in scientific instruments. Pasteur's discovery of bacteria, for example, was very significant in controlling human diseases. As a result, the European birthrate rose even faster.

As the population grew, the demand for bread and therefore the value of wheat increased. While the population had grown, the land under cultivation had stayed the same. People began to think about improving soils and cereal varieties. West European wheat at that time was of very poor quality, low-yielding, and susceptible to fungal diseases like rusts and moulds.

Ukrainian wheat was thus a gift to farmers who could get it. Their number increased as Ukrainian wheat continued to be exported. It would be shipped from Eastern Ukraine by rail and by river to the Black Sea ports, from where it went to the Mediterranean and beyond. Wheat from Galicia, or Halychyna (Western Ukraine), was exported mainly from the port of Danzig and from there to other countries by sea. It was sold on foreign markets as "Galician wheat."

People all over the world had been enjoying bread made from Ukrainian wheat, although in most cases it was known as Russian wheat. Seldom was it identified as Ukrainian. The first documented wheat export from Ukraine was to southern France in 1826. Another was to Canada in 1842 (more on this later). In the first case, the wheat was shipped to Marseilles from Odessa; in the second, the wheat reached Canada from Western Ukraine by way of Danzig and Glasgow, Scotland.

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