From a single seed - Tracing the Marquis wheat success story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine (4 of 11)

Early History of Wheat Growing in Canada

This section is based on Chapter I, sect. 1-5 of A.H. Reginald Buller's Essays on Wheat. (7, p. 1-12)

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. Although their grain crops had failed, they had a good harvest of potatoes and turnips in 1813 and 1814. In the spring of 1815 they planted wheat and barley again but in June the northeastern Métis attacked and destroyed everything the settlers had built. The governor of the colony was also captured. Some families managed to escape to Upper Canada, while 13 households fled up the Jack River to settle in an area north of Lake Winnipeg called Norway House.

A relief expedition arrived from Montreal a few weeks after the colonists had been driven away. It was sent by Lord Selkirk and headed by Colin Robertson. The dispersed colonists were brought back to the original settlement. Those who returned were glad to see how everything they had planted had grown. That was their first grain harvest.

In 1816 the Métis attacked again, causing heavy damage. The next year the harvest was good but a hurricane destroyed everything in the fall. In 1818 there was a good harvest of wheat, potatoes, turnips, and peas. But their hopes were dashed again by the sudden arrival of billions of grasshoppers that covered the sky like a black cloud. They devoured every growing thing -- even the leaves on the trees -- over the last two weeks of July. The settlers had no way to continue farming. This cruel misfortune had been completely unexpected. People stared at the sky and wept.

The grasshopper plague of 1818 was not the only one recorded in the history of Canadian agriculture: it was repeated in 1864 and again in 1867. After the plague of 1818, the settlers moved to Pembina and avoided starvation by hunting buffalo.

In the early spring of 1819 the settlers returned to their old homesteads and planted the fields with their remaining seed grain. However, new grasshoppers appeared from the eggs laid the previous year, destroying everything by the end of June. In some places, the layer of grasshoppers on the ground was four inches thick. All the vegetation was destroyed. Even the water in rivers was poisoned, glutted with billions of grasshoppers. By 1820 no seed grain remained in the settlement.

New Seed-Wheat from the United States

In the spring of 1820 the Selkirk settlements sent some of their men to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, on the Mississippi River, to purchase new seed wheat. After a difficult three-month trek covering several hundred miles through the snow, the settlers bought 250 bushels (bu) of wheat at 10 shillings a bushel. The grain was transported by barge up the Mississippi to the point where it joins the Minnesota River, across Big Stone Lake and from there to the Red River Valley. The settlers arrived with the seed in June and planted it right away. When the plants were full grown, the grasshoppers descended again and it seemed as if the pests would destroy everything a third time. For some unknown reason, however, the grasshoppers receded and did not come back. Because of the late planting, all of the crop did not ripen fully. Still, the grain was ripe enough and there was enough of it for the next year's planting. From 1820 on, the Red River settlers had no shortage of grain until 1868 when the grasshoppers returned and destroyed all the crops once more. (7, sect 6, p. 12-14)

The harvest of 1821 was not good so it was only possible to save enough grain for the next spring's planting. The settlers had no surplus food. The arrival of new Swiss emigrants had made the food shortage worse. As a result, the men went to Pembina to hunt buffalo again. These pioneer times and struggles are described in detail by A. Ross in his book The Red River Settlement. (7, p. 10)

The whole continent was very wild and harsh at that time. The land was overgrown, uncultivated and difficult to tame by the early European settlers. They found themselves under continuous attack by a seemingly hostile nature armed with an endless assortment of powerful natural weapons such as pests, plant diseases (rust, mould, rot), storms, floods, and rapid temperature changes.

There are no records on the varieties of wheat planted or the exact locations of the fields. Some authors mention that in certain places farmers had brought seed wheat with them from England to Canada. As it appears from these records, each variety was considered good if it gave any yield at all. In general it appears that there were no good varieties of wheat here at that time as there are frequent references to farmers looking for better varieties as if for a most valuable commodity.

The quality of spring wheat in the early part of the nineteenth century was poor. This created a problem. The Canadian climate was not always favourable for the cultivation of winter wheat, which in any case was often attacked by diseases like rust, which would destroy some or all of the crop. There were no varieties of wheat that could meet the growing season requirements of Canada's climate. In addition, the colony lacked skilled farmers. Otherwise Canada's vast territories might have produced immense quantities of grain very early on, which could have played a major role in the development of its economy.

A wheat crop of a size that would allow exports was just a dream, both for the pioneer farmers and for the government. This dream was to be fulfilled decades later with the appearance of Ukrainian wheat in Canada. It arrived at a small farm in Otonabee, Canada West, in 1842 -- a quarter-century before Confederation -- a harbinger of economic development for the New World and eventually all the wheat-growing countries of the world.

Origin of Red Fife Wheat

This famous wheat, commonly known as Red Fife or Scotch Fife in North America, is called "red" because that is its colour when fully ripe and "Fife" after David Fife, the Ontario farmer who was the first to grow it in North America when he sowed it on his farm in 1842. The story of how it got there has taken on aspects of myth and legend. It takes place at various locations across two continents: one often needs to look ahead in time, then back, to understand how it happened. (This section is based on Buller, Chapter III, sect. 23, p. 206-218.)

In 1860 J.W. Clarke, a Wisconsin farmer, harvested a bumper crop of Red Fife wheat averaging about 36 bu per acre. He was so pleased with this harvest that he wrote a letter to The Country Gentleman and Cultivator magazine describing his success and recommending this new variety of wheat to all farmers. Almost incidentally he introduced the originator of this wheat, David Fife, a farmer from Otonabee in Canada West, now Ontario.

Clarke's letter obviously elicited interest in Canada because it was published in the March 1861 issue of The Canadian Agriculturist, accompanied by a letter from George Esson, a neighbour of David Fife, which was also published in The Country Gentleman and Cultivator. Esson's letter explains how the famous wheat had first come to Canada and how he had found out about it. Both he and Fife had come to Canada from Tullyallen Parish, Kincardine, Scotland. He writes:

"About 1842, Mr. David Fife of Otonabee, Canada West, procured through a friend in Glasgow, Scotland, a quantity of wheat, which had been obtained from a cargo direct from Dantzic (the German port of Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland), at the time of spring sowing. As it came to hand just before spring seed time, and not knowing whether it was a fall or spring variety, Mr. Fife concluded to sow a part of it that spring, and wait for the result. It proved to be fall wheat, as it never ripened, except three ears, which grew apparently from a single grain; these were preserved, and although sowed the next year under very unfavourable circumstances, being quite late, and in a shady place, it proved at harvest to be entirely free of rust, when all the wheat in the neighbourhood was badly rusted. The produce of this was carefully preserved, and from it sprung the variety of wheat known over Canada and the Northern States, by the different names of Fife, Scotch and Glasgow. As the facts occurred in my immediate neighbourhood, and being intimately acquainted not only with the introducer, but with the circumstances, I can vouch for the correctness of the statement, and if necessary produce incontestable proof." (7, p. 207-208)

This letter supports the proposition that the ancestors of Red Fife wheat originally may have been grown somewhere in Central or Eastern Europe. It is known that the wheat was originally shipped from Danzig to Glasgow, then sent on to David Fife in Ontario.

George Esson's letter to The Country Gentleman and Cultivator was hardly noticed at the time and was soon forgotten. As the Red Fife variety became more important over the years, various other stories were told. For example, here is one from The Manitoba Daily Free Press, 1883:

"The first Red Fife grown in Canada was on a farm owned by a person by the name of Fife in Otonabee, County of Peterborough. Mr. Fife hired a Scotchman as a farm labourer. When his time expired with Mr. Fife, he decided on returning to his native country. Mr. Fife requested him to send a Scotch bonnet from Glasgow. When there, a vessel from the Black Sea was unloading wheat at one of the docks. He procured the full of the bonnet and sent it on the first opportunity to Mr. Fife. I have many times been on the same farm." (7, p. 210)

Here is a more colourful version of the story from Peterborough:

"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." (7, p. 211)

Buller also cites C.C. James, who connects the oxen episode to David Fife's wife:

"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."

He ends by noting that a photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Fife had been taken and was to be published in several newspapers. (7, p. 211)

The area where the famous wheat was first grown is now known as the Midland District of Ontario, located between Toronto and Kingston, extending about 40 miles north of Lake Ontario, including parts of the counties of Durham, Northumberland, Peterborough and Hastings. (7, p. 212)

Otonabee lies at the southernmost tip of Peterborough County, with the Otonabee River to the west, Rice Lake to the south, Peterborough itself to the north and Hastings to the east. It was first settled in 1816. When the Fife family came to Canada and went to Otonabee to establish their future home at the start of the last century, it was already farming land, much of it owned by the Crown. The Fife farm was located about seven miles east of Peterborough.

At the time, local farmers grew a wheat variety known as Siberian. It had been introduced to Canada in the hope that it would survive the severe Canadian winters. But the Siberian wheat did not grow well: its yields were low and it was susceptible to rust. So David Fife wrote to Glasgow asking for samples of good seed wheat, which were shipped to him. But by the time the grain had arrived in Canada at the port of Smith's Creek (now Port Hope), it was too late for spring sowing so the samples were held in storage until the following spring. (7, p. 213)

Of course wheat is not grown in Glasgow. I believe that this variety was shipped there from Western Ukraine (Galicia) under its old local name "Halychanka." When Austria began to grow it, it was called Galizische Kolben. According to Buller, "Efforts made to locate the territory from which the seed was derived were never successful, and the origin of the new wheat was looked upon as an accidental occurrence. From these small beginnings came the wheat that has so largely contributed to the agricultural reputation of this section of Ontario, and which has made the crops desirable to millers all over Canada." (7, p. 215)

No information on the development of Red Fife wheat between 1842 and 1860 was found in historic records or magazines in Canada or the United States, even though it soon became popular south of the border. "Red Fife" has never been the commonly accepted name for this wheat in the United States: most often it was called just plain Fife. With the growth of its popularity, it gained various other names. For example, growers who improved and distributed it would add their names to it: so Red Fife was also known as Bernard Fife, Herman Fife, MacKendry Fife, MacKissing Fife, Philsbury Fife, Wendon Fife, Wilcox Fife, etc. Eventually, the original name would disappear. Americans have also called this wheat Canadian Fife, Fife, Saskatchewan Fife and Scotch Fife. It continues to exist under these names to the present day. (8, p. 92)

I believe all of them are descendants of the Ukrainian Halychanka variety, mentioned in the old folk songs as "dear spring wheat." It has an old tradition in Ukraine and is a symbol of household happiness and prosperity. This variety was rated as export quality and grown primarily in Western Ukraine -- in Halychyna and Volyn.

The cultivation of Galician wheat in the United States spread very quickly. Soon after the Clark article appeared in 1860, Red Fife was being grown in Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Clark's own Wisconsin. (8, p. 92)

It is not known when Red Fife was first sown in Western Canada but we can assume that small quantities of it had already been grown in Manitoba by 1876 because 857 buof Red Fife wheat were sent from Manitoba to Ontario for seed in that year. (7, p. 216) The population of the Red River area in 1870 totalled 12,800. However the land under cultivation was still very limited. There were no stores to buy household supplies: they had to be either produced at home or ordered from the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). There were farms only between Upper and Lower Fort Garry on the Red River and along the northern bank of the Assiniboine River. (7, p. 30)

It was possible to produce grain only within two miles of those rivers. The first settlers to cultivate Canada's prairie soil successfully were Mennonites who had moved to the southern part of Manitoba from Ukraine in 1875. Among other things, they brought with them the wheat known as White Russian, which was later replaced by Red Fife. (7, p. 30)

A Revolutionary Discovery in the Milling of Wheat

Until 1882, the amount of wheat grown in Manitoba barely exceeded the local demand. Also, until 1870, all grain was milled between millstones at traditional water-powered mills. This method produced better flour from winter wheat, as it was impossible to separate out the bran from spring wheat with this process. Even a small amount of bran residue made the flour dark. Although the quality of flour made out of spring wheat was lower than that of winter wheat, good bread could still be made with spring wheat flour. The loaf rose well even if it was of a darker colour. However, because of the dark colour, the price for spring wheat was lower. (7, p. 31)

The technical revolution which took place in flour-milling between 1870 and 1880 facilitated wider growing of Red Fife and other spring wheat varieties in Western Canada and the American Great Plains. The first purifier capable of separating out 100% of the bran, even from spring wheat, was invented by the French engineer Perrigault and introduced into Minnesota in 1870. It ground wheat not with millstones but between steel rollers. This invention made it possible to make spring wheat flour that was every bit as good as that milled from the best winter wheat. It created a huge demand for spring wheat, whose flour was suddenly in demand throughout North America and on world markets. As a result, the demand for Red Fife seed in Canada grew and our wheat fields expanded. A large quantity of Red Fife seed was brought into Manitoba from Minnesota. (7, pp. 30-31)

In 1878 a new rail line provided a direct transportation link between St. Paul and St. Boniface. Canadian farmers and grain traders were sure that there would be a good market for wheat in Western Canada as well, when the Prairies got their rail connection to the Pacific ports. (7, p. 32)

When Manitoba became the fifth province of the new Dominion in 1870, the flow of settlers from the south began. Eight years later immigrants were still arriving by land and by the Red River. Then on Dominion Day 1886 the first train to Vancouver went through Winnipeg. "Its engine, Canadian Pacific Railway No. 1, opened the rail line which will bring hundreds of millions of bushels of wheat to our ports to satisfy the world's need for bread." I believe that construction of the CPR was proposed and implemented as soon as possible in great measure because of the success of Red Fife wheat. Buller writes:

"A grain of wheat is such a small thing: yet the development of Western Canada is connected to it so closely that it is not too much to say that without wheat, the great and prosperous city of Winnipeg, with its population of 200,000 (in 1917), its impressive buildings and cosmopolitan life, would have still been slowly growing"…"The engineers of the CPR overcame all the difficulties in their way because they were people of vision, who could imagine the golden grain under the blue dome of sky, laid on a tablecloth of fertile acres of prairie land…" (7, pp. 33-34)

This contribution to Canadian society was made possible at least in part by the Ukrainian Halychanka wheat, or Red Fife, as it was known then. In Buller's words:

"The high quality of the wheat in Canada's Prairie provinces achieved universal renown. Canada became known as 'the Grain Elevator of the British Empire.' It is well remembered how Canada's granary served the Allies during World War I -- indeed, it is known by the whole world." (7, p. 34)

In 1882 James Hartney imported a carload of Red Fife wheat into Manitoba. He sowed it on virgin soil and harvested a bumper crop. At the Winnipeg Fair he received first prize from the CPR and the HBC for the 10 best bushels of wheat. In 1882 the HBC also established a series of experimental farms along the railroad from Winnipeg to Calgary. Horses, ploughs, and workers were transported to each farm by train. Wherever they found open land or prospective fields along the rail line, the ploughs, horses, and workers were unloaded and the land ploughed and sown. By the fall the crop would be ready to harvest. The HBC then delivered the seed grain to the settlers, who had created an enormous demand for it. As a result, the availability of Red Fife seed increased rapidly throughout 1882 and 1883. (7, p. 217)

In addition, the firm of Traill, Maulson, and Clark had imported 10,000 bu of Red Fife wheat from Minnesota into Manitoba in 1883. To facilitate and improve the wheat harvest, the government permitted farms to import Red Fife into Canada duty-free. The CPR also helped the farmers by allowing them to transport the famous wheat free of charge for the same reason. The result was that after 1882 Red Fife displaced all other varieties such as Club, Golden Drop, and White Russian. Red Fife became the standard variety of wheat in Western Canada. (7, p. 218)

Judging from all the crop and quality records, Red Fife already was considered the best wheat, even in 1880. It had been the choice of most growers for 20 years and was widely known as the world's best spring wheat because of its high productivity and excellent milling and baking qualities. Its top grade, Manitoba No. 1 Hard, commanded the highest price on the British markets. (7, pp. 145-146) As The Manitoba Daily Free Press wrote in 1883, "Red Fife wheat is unbeatable."

The Experimental Farms

At about the same time, the Government of Canada decided to set up a series of experimental farms to improve Canada's agriculture, make professional and scientific assistance available to farmers, and generally facilitate the development of agriculture in this country.

In 1886 a Canadian parliamentary commission appointed pharmacist Dr. William Saunders as the first Director of the Dominion Experimental Farm in Ottawa and gave him the task of organizing Canada's experimental farms. At a time when biology was still in its infancy, Saunders was interested in plant breeding: he grew food plants like apple trees, gooseberries, currants, and raspberries. He spent his spare time improving these plants by means of new scientific crossing methods, with a good deal of success. He also established a program for the improvement of wheat. At first he ran the program himself with a few assistants. Eventually he managed to interest his sons in botany: both became professionals in the field. (7, 145)

Saunders spent his first year on the job travelling, studying Canada's soils and its unstable climate, and trying to find out what its farmers needed. In Western Canada he inspected the new wheat fields and the spikes of Red Fife waving in the wind, heavy with grain. In Saskatchewan he met a pioneer, Angus MacKay, who became his assistant in wheat improvement. Saunders travelled throughout the Assiniboine and Indian Head Districts by horse and carriage. He covered hundreds of miles, stopping even at the smallest homesteads. Everywhere, he listened to what people had to say. What did farmers in this new country need? Some grain growers said, "We need to find a way to grow grain even when there's no rain from June to July" or "We need a wheat we can harvest before the August frosts." Others reported good harvests of Red Fife even in dry years. On his return he appointed MacKay Director of the Experimental Farm at Indian Head.

By the time he returned to Ottawa, Saunders had developed a good idea of what Canada's farmers needed. In particular, he recognized the value of Halychanka (Red Fife) wheat to the young nation's agriculture. Then he set to work to meet the various needs of Canada's grain growers by importing different wheat varieties from around the world. Some came from the Far North in Russia, near the Arctic Circle; some from northern Europe; some had been grown at different altitudes -- from 500 to 11,000 feet, which is the limit for wheat growing, in the Himalayan mountains in India. Others came from the United States, Australia, and Japan. They were grown next to Halychanka (Red Fife) plots at all the experimental farms so their productivity could be compared to the Canadian standard as they ripened. (7, p. 146)

Saunders never says anything about Ukrainian wheat, even though many North American farmers already knew about Galician wheat. Most of the wheat varieties he tested came from the United States, Australia and Russia. Most were found to ripen at the same time or even later than the Halychanka (Red Fife). Some Russian and Indian varieties did ripen earlier; however, their milling and baking properties were inferior. Others produced such poor yields that they were dropped from the research program.

The main task was to generate a variety which would ripen earlier than the Galician wheat, but retain all of its characteristics.For a while Saunders had a great hope that the Russian Ladoga variety would be the most suitable for Canada because it grew at an altitude of 60 feet near Lake Ladoga, north of St. Petersburg, and at the same latitude as the research station 600 miles north of Winnipeg. It also ripened 10 days earlier than the Halychanka (Red Fife) variety and produced a large enough harvest. It seemed as if Ladoga was the future for Canada's wheat growers. (7, p. 146)