Red Fife Wheat: Heir to the Prairies

I consider this post a sort of addendum to The Story of the Buffalo.  I suggest having a gander at that post before reading this one.

 

Red Fife wheat has received a lot of attention in our part of the world.  It is a heritage or heirloom wheat, touted as the first cultivar to be grown successfully on the Canadian prairies. It is not genetically modified, and since it is not industrially grown, it is often organic.  There are many compelling reasons to grow, purchase, mill, and cook with Red Fife wheat.  It is, however, romanticized to a hilarious degree.

We all know that the buffalo was the basis of prairie life before European arrival.  It remained an important staple in forts and trading posts along the various routes taken by voyageurs and coureurs de bois well into the 1800s.[1]

By the end of the 1870s the buffalo had been hunted to near-extinction, and treaties had been signed with the natives.  The next period of prairie history was European settlement and conversion of the native grass- and pakland to farmland, most notably for grain-growing.

Grain is central to the identity of the prairie provinces.  If you think that’s an overstatement, I direct you to the provincial flags of Alberta and Saskatchewan, both of which brandish golden stalks of wheat.  It’s incredible to think, but at one time there were serious doubts that the prairies could ever be farmed successfully.  The first significant attempt, made by the Red River Colony, was full of failures and disappointments.[2]  They had difficulty clearing the land, had to contend with flooding and locusts on a biblical scale, and then of course there were the bitterly, impossibly cold winters and the brief growing seasons.  Most European varieties of winter wheat were killed by the frigid cold, and most varieties of spring wheat could not ripen before the first frosts of autumn.[3]

Despite set-backs, the Red River Colony eventually found a robust strain of wheat, and they were more or less self-sufficient grain-wise from 1820 onward.[4]

In 1857 the British and the colonial Canadian governments both sent expeditions west of the Red River Colony, all the way to the Rockies and beyond, in part to asses the land’s agricultural potential. The former was led by a man named Palliser, the latter by a man named Hind. Though the Palliser report contained descriptors like “semi-arid” and “almost-desert”, the general consensus was that agriculture would be possible throughout much of the region.

Meanwhile Red Fife wheat was making its way west from Ontario.  David Fife was a Scotsman living in Peterborough, and his serendipitous “discovery” of what became known as Red Fife wheat is now a Canadian food legend.  In 1842 a friend of David’s working at the port in Glasgow sent him some grains of a hardy wheat variety.  Most sources say that the wheat had come to Glasgow from the Ukraine.  The story goes that the friend dipped his hat into the grain, lodging some of the seeds in the interior headband, and then sent this hat to Fife in Canada.  Fife planted the seeds, but only one stalk grew.  That one stalk was decimated by the family cow, but thankfully someone managed to save one head from bovine destruction.[5]

These rescued seeds produced hardy wheat that was resistant to rusts and other diseases. It became famous locally, then spread south into the US, and west across Canada.  By 1870 Red Fife wheat was common on the prairies.[6]  While it was not the first wheat to be grown here, it is considered the first distinct Canadian wheat variety.  Where Old World wheat varieties had offered mere subsistence, Red Fife and its scion Marquis offered prosperity.  Reliably productive wheat crops helped entice millions of immigrants from Europe and the United States into the Canadian west, a region that would later export massive quantities of grain and become the “breadbasket of the world”.

The success or failure of a people has always depended on the success or failure of their associated flora and fauna.  It’s hard for us, a supermarket people, to comprehend, but our mode of existence is largely predicated on tiny genetic mutations in the plants and animals that we eat.  The only reason that we grow wheat in the first place is that thousands of years ago a single Mesopotamian wheat mutant held onto its seeds instead of releasing them and letting them fall to the ground.  Normally this would have been a fatal defect: how could the plant reproduce if its seeds didn’t fall to the ground and get pushed into the soil?  Thankfully someone took notice of the unusual plant, and grabbed the easily-harvested seeds.  They probably ate some, and one way or another planted the rest.[7]  Likewise a mutation in Fife’s wheat from Glasgow made the plant so robust and well-adapted to Canada that it became a keystone for European settlement of the Canadian west.

In this context we can return to the buffalo.  Bison and wheat are two sides of the same coin: bison, the wild animal that sustained the largely nomadic indigenous people of the prairies, nearly eradicated by the voracious buffalo hunt; wheat the sort of heir to the prairies, and Red Fife the unique cultivar that appeared to fill the agricultural gap and make European life here possible.

As with the buffalo post, I want to sort of wash my hands and say that my goal in writing this brief history is not to arrive at any kind of moral decision. The mandate of the local-food movement is to know more about where our food comes from. While we often talk about specific grains grown on specific farms, this post was an attempt to consider a plant from a broader perspective.

 

 

References and Other Notes

1.  In 1814 the Red River Colony, closely associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, attempted to take control of the regional pemmican trade.  The violent response from the North West Company is now called the Pemmican War.

2.  Described in detail in this article on the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website: From a Single Seed: Tracing the Marquis wheat success story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine.

3.  From the entry on “Wheat” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition, published by Hurtig Publishers in Edmonton, 1988.  Winter wheat is planted in the fall.  It germinates, then goes dormant over the winter, and resumes growing in the spring.  Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.

4.  Also from From a Single Seed on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

5.  The online Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Red Fife wheat.

6.  Also from From a Single Seed on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

7.  From Jared Diamond’s brain-blowing book Guns, Germs, and Steel, one of the greatest food books of all time, even though you won’t find it in the food section of the bookstore.  The domestication of wheat is described in Chapter 7, “How to Make an Almond.”

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