"Our debt to Ukraine"

Tom Hunton in a field of Red Fife. Junction City, OR

Tom Hunton in a field of Red Fife. Junction City, OR

Just as the story of human history is one of perpetual migration, so too is the history of our seeds--scattered by the wind, tucked in pockets, carefully packed, accidentally included in cargo, and planted by generations of humans on the move. Sometimes even more remarkable than the migration of the seeds, however, is their landing place and the careful propagation that allows them to subsist for generations. 

Take, for example, the incredible history of Red Fife wheat, now growing here in the heart of the valley.

In the mid 1800s, a Scottish immigrant named David Fife planted wheat seed from the old country on his Ontario acreage. Keen on securing seed that would survive the rough Canadian winters, Fife reached back to contacts in Glasgow who sent seed from Eastern Europe. The seed had already crossed many borders by the time it reached North America, tucked in cargo across the Baltic and North Seas from the port of Danzig to the port of Glasgow.

Fife's first plantings were fairly unimpressive at harvest, save one detail--while his neighbors' fields of 'Siberian' wheat suffered from terrible rust, his new variety was completely rust-free. Determined to preserve the trait, Fife saved seed year after year until a sturdy variety came in to being. 

At this point, legends and rumors begin to swirl--some folks say the seed was swept off the docks off Glasgow and sent to David Fife, others that the seed was tucked in a hat brim, or that the whole of the harvest was eaten by the family cow save three heads, which Fife saved seed from. Regardless...

Like pollen on the wind, word of Fife's wheat began to spread and by the late 1800s, record yields of the "Fife" variety were recorded by farmers in the United States. A Wisconsin farmer wrote of his success with Red Fife to The Country Gentleman and Cultivator magazine, encouraging other northern farmers to plant the variety. Over the next decade, Fife spread from coast to coast, planted by farmers and homesteaders from Idaho to Oklahoma to Maine. 

In 1882, a Manitoba farmer gained national recognition when his bumper crop bushels of Fife wheat won top prize at the Winnipeg Fair. The Hudson Bay Company (HBC) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) who doled out the prizes at the fair saw huge promise with Fife wheat, and helped facilitate its rapid spread through the 1900s. Experimental farms were established on any and all raw land along the HBC lines from Winnipeg to Calgary, where workers planted and harvested Fife seed that was shipped to settlers up and down the rail lines. Success with the grain prompted the Canadian government to allow Red Fife to be imported duty-free, and the CPR waived transport charges for farmers who ordered the grain. In no time, Red Fife was the dominant wheat in Western Canada, and northern farmers gained footholds in British markets, where the grain was considered the premiere spring wheat for milling. 

This remarkable grain that moved like prairie fire across Canada and the northern United States is now recognized as a descendant of Ukrainian Halychanka wheat, a hearty, leggy wheat with a long history in Ukrainian folklore. What became Red Fife was likely a hybrid of this Halychanka wheat and a Canadian wheat or other variety present in the mixed-seed bag David Fife received from Glasgow. 

Ukrainian women at harvest time

Ukrainian women at harvest time

So what happened? How did the variety that built the backbone of the Canadian wheat economy nearly vanish from cultivation and become a prize of heirloom, slow food and small-scale growers? It's a simple and historically ubiquitous answer--the search for ever better and higher yields.

While Red Fife had highly desirable baking and milling characteristics, farmers wanted a variety that would ripen even earlier. Extensive research and experimentation by a Dr. William Saunders (a physicist by training with a hobby of plant breeding) and his sons involved hundreds of crosses between Red Fife, imported Halychanka varieties and other varieties from around the world. Eventually, the Saunders' struck a gold mine in their research with the development of 'Marquis' wheat, a variety with all the baking and milling characteristics of Red Fife that matured even earlier. While not rust-resistant, its early maturation avoided the onset of rust, and the short time until ripening allowed Marquis to be grown even further north than Red Fife. 

With the expansive rail and distribution infrastructure fueled by Red Fife already set in place, Marquis seed moved quickly across Canada and the northern United States. Farmers keen to be on the cutting edge of new, high yield varieties swept up Marquis seed, and by 1918, it comprised 80% of all wheat planted in the Canadian prairie provinces. It's spread was paralleled in the United States, particularly in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana. Thus, the bread basket of North America was born, and the original Red Fife retreated to the fringes of the field.

As Stephan Symko has written, the introduction of Ukrainian wheat is perhaps the most significant agricultural event in the history of Canada, and the western prairies in general. It was the cultivation and expansion first of Red Fife and then its descendant varieties that revolutionized food production and expansion--without the perhaps accidental inclusion of Ukrainian wheat seed in David Fife's seed, we would be looking at an entirely different landscape to our north.

Ironically enough to those of us who stone mill flour, the expansion of wheat was facilitated by technological innovation in milling that allowed the removal of bran and germ from red wheat. As the old becomes new again, we are seeing heritage varieties like Red Fife revived by stone mills from here in Oregon to North Carolina, as bakers and consumers seek out distinct and diverse ingredients recently drowned out by the commodity market. We are grateful to the heritage grain enthusiasts devoted to preserving the genetic diversity of crops like Red Fife who have kept these delicious and important varieties from disappearing entirely.

Red Fife elicits a response from bakers unlike almost anything else--there's gesticulation, wide eyes, excited claims of "caramel notes." While Red Fife is unlikely to usurp all other wheat across the West again, the contagious goodness of this 'grandmother' of Canadian wheat clearly has staying power.