What I've learned about wheat so far...

I wrote an essay about wheat and here’s what I learned:

  1. First, the wheat plant is self-pollinating and cross-breeding requires separating anthers and pistils. There are three main types of wheat; winter wheat, spring wheat and durum. The last two are what are mostly grown in the prairie provinces while winter wheat is mostly grown in Europe. Durum is used for pasta and has fewer chromosomes than the other two bread-making wheats. It also seems as if durum was always just durum; whereas spring wheat has all kinds of varieties. 
  2. The development of new wheat varieties is interesting because, in the beginning, it was a pretty basic cross-breeding program. Successful wheat crops in Manitoba began with Red Fife which had been grown by a farmer in Ontario. The official effort to create new varieties began in 1886 with the institution of Experimental Farms whose goal was to create varieties that ripened earlier. The first success was Marquis wheat, the result of a cross between Red Fife and a variety of wheat from the Himalayas called Hard Red Calcutta. It ripened days earlier than Red Fife and produced beautiful bread. In a book published in 1918 called Essays on Wheat, its discovery was described with a lot of optimism.
  3. Cross-breeding became important for rust-resistance. Rust would evolve and attack the wheat stems or leaves to the point that some years it was described as an epidemic. New rust-resistant cultivars in Manitoba included Thatcher in the 1930’s and Selkirk in the 1950’s. But that’s where I stopped looking at wheat agronomy and so I know relatively little about hybrid wheat, heritage varieties and genetically-modified wheat. I also suspect that climate change has had an effect on the amount of spring wheat Canada produces and I would like to know more about it.
  4. I love the early stories about wheat being sown in Manitoba. First efforts were made by the Selkirk settlers. The prairies had been used for hunting and trapping so it wasn’t even a sure-thing that the land could produce wheat. The other thing was that the first settlers weren’t even farmers… they were mostly fishermen and they didn’t have good tools at their disposal; one account says they only had a hoe. Grain came from England. Early crops often failed for a variety of reasons, but the most interesting ones sound like Biblical plagues; flocks of passenger pigeons, clouds of locusts, an outbreak of mice, and flooding. Everything was so wild!
  5. I get surprised about how much daily life is influenced by the economy. In my childhood bubble the world was run by values and money was a source of frustration. But successful crops of wheat were needed to expand development and development expanded when there were good crops. The railway is an example. The first railroad connected Winnipeg to St. Paul Minnesota and this encouraged trade with the United States. A railroad connecting Manitoba to the Great Lakes later opened the market to Great Britain.
  6. I learned about the Canadian Wheat Board. The brief story is this: It was first put into place for a short time in 1919 and the idea came from Australia who had a similar model in 1915. The government control was meant to be temporary and so it lasted only a year. Farmers wanted it to be re-instituted in the 1920’s and this gave way to the provincial Pools. They worked in competition with private elevator companies and the Great Depression saw the end of the provincial Pools’ role in grain marketing. Prime Minister R. B. Bennett re-instituted the Wheat Board in 1935 and it was based on voluntary participation (like in 1919). Mackenzie King was re-elected in 1935 and his Liberal government realized that it was necessary to make it compulsory. So the Canadian Wheat Board became the single-desk marketer of wheat in Canada in 1943. Its role continued until legislation was passed in 2011 making it voluntary again.
  7. The Canadian Wheat Board was Canada’s unique response to wheat marketing and differed from the way the United States marketed wheat. It was a necessary difference however, because Canada depended more on wheat exports than did the United States and couldn’t afford the subsidies the Americans put in place. My course was based on the relationship between Canada and the United States and so looking into the marketing of wheat I got to see just how competitive it could be… As much as some of the American wheat subsidy programs were causes of complaint for Canadian farmers (like the Public Law 480 program under Eisenhower), the Americans often viewed the Canadian Wheat Board with suspicion. 

I’m not done studying wheat, but for now this was the result of a few weeks of reading and note-taking. I want to know more about agronomy and how wheat compares to other grain crops. I only barely understand the marketing basics of wheat futures and what hedging means and realize economics are not my forte. I want to read more about the history of grain elevators, line elevator companies, milling, farm technology, farm practices, prime ministers and the wheat board. I got good marks on the essay even though it could have been more tightly focused. I get excited when my reading starts to connect to the lives of the farmers in my family. It a small way, books bridge the gap between generations and help me better understand my pet project in Aubigny.