External Writer: CAFE
The year is 1909. During even the best of winters, Canada’s climate is harsh. Agriculture is an important way of life for early settlers, just as it is in Europe. How can one be successful when the weather is against you? How can it be possible to get bread on the table when wheat harvests are minimal and the produce is of a quality which back home would only be fit for livestock? Perhaps, there is hope: a new strand of wheat designed to be grown in Canada’s climate has just been announced. This wheat promises high yields, great quality, and the ability to harvest before the early frosts. What does this mean for the Dominion of Canada?
With the influx of Europeans moving to Canada, there comes a market for the familiar – crops included. Many settlers would take seeds from their home country to the New World in hopes of having something to start from. Naturally, wheat is one of the most popular seeds and is known for being ground into flour to create breads, pastas, pastries, etc. Unfortunately, the climate is harsh and not inherently conducive to agriculture, mainly due to the growing season. The wheat species brought to Canada were varieties such as Golden Drop, which originates in Scotland where summers are long and winters are short . This is in stark contrast to Canada, where the grain has less time to grow and ripen. A whole crop of wheat could be devastated by an early frost. This situation led to a slow adoption of growing wheat by Canadian farmers from the 1600s to mid-1800s .
In 1842, Red Fife, a strand of wheat likely originating in Ukraine, was introduced  . Compared to most varieties available at the time, this wheat produced a larger yield and had a higher gluten content, making it ideal for baking. The introduction of this higher quality wheat allowed for further development of wheat farms in Canada and even helped spur the development of the railway system . Despite all these benefits, Red Fife took long to mature and did not fare well in the late fall, when frost is common .
In 1886, the government appointed Dr. William Saunders as head of the Experimental Farms Service. To determine which varieties of wheat were best suited to the Canadian climate, he maintained various experimental farms across Canada where he would plant different strands of wheat . Crossbreeding was new at the time, but Dr. William Saunders’ son, Dr. Charles Saunders, decided to crossbreed wheat varieties to determine if better strands could be designed. During this time, Red Fife successfully represented wheat grown in Canada globally, and he hoped further improvement would allow farmers the security of harvesting before the frosts hit. He took Red Fife with its large yield and great gluten content and crossed it with Hard Red Calcutta, a strand from India. Hard Red Calcutta matured about 21 days before Red Fife, and Saunders intended to exploit that  .
This crossbreed became the 2 varieties: Markham A and Markham B (later renamed Marquis A and Marquis B). When harvesting these crossbreeds, Charles Saunders wanted to ensure he kept only the highest quality grains. To do this, he would chew a dough ball from a few wheat kernels off a head of wheat. He surmised that the most elastic of these dough balls would be the ones with the highest gluten content. Eventually, after further generations and testing, he had narrowed it down to the highest quality Marquis B seeds, which ultimately became Marquis wheat  .
This superb variety retained the good baking qualities of Red Fife but was able to mature 7-10 days before. This may not seem like a large difference, but it could have been the difference between a mature harvest and the first frost. Marquis also had an incredible yield, about 20% greater than that of Red Fife, which was the gold standard at the time  .
Unsurprisingly, these qualities made Marquis wheat an amazing crop. By 1918, it dominated over 80% of the total acreage from Northern Saskatchewan to Southern Nebraska  . This consistent, high-quality wheat variety allowed Canada to become the dominant wheat exporter in the world . Even today, Canada is in the top 3 global wheat exporters .
To further solidify Marquis’ status, it is the ancestor of innumerable wheat varieties as seen in Figure 1. From well-known and well-harvested varieties, to ones only used in experiments, almost every wheat strand produced in Canada over the last century can be traced back to Marquis . Marquis wheat was even instrumental in the war effort, feeding not only Canadians and their soldiers, but also the soldiers of allied countries during the food shortage of 1917-18 .
It is easy to see that Marquis wheat has had a lasting impact on Canada, but it has also left its mark on the world. Marquis (and its parent, Red Fife) made the Canadian Hard Red Spring (CHRS) class of wheat famous for its high quality and gluten content. This legacy lasts even today; this class of wheat is the highest priced class on the world market . Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, Canada has been at the forefront of wheat production and exportation. Canada increased its export of wheat from 8 to 75 million bushels between the years 1896 and 1911, a difference of just 15 years ! More recently, Canada produced 32.3 million tons of wheat (about 1.19 billion bushels of wheat9) and exported approximately $5.4 billion USD worth of wheat in 2019 alone  . All these Canadian feats would not have been possible if not for Marquis wheat.
Looking back to 1907, newly immigrated Canadians would likely have been daunted looking at their new lives, but there were many reasons to be excited. There was difficulty moving and adjusting to the New World with short growing seasons and harsh climates. However, Canada was at the forefront of an agricultural phenomenon that would one day place it on the world stage. A simple seed brought over from Europe mixed with some Canadian ingenuity created a plant incredible enough to share with the world yet unique enough to stay our own.
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