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.

Wherein I get to drive a swather

On a warm Sunday afternoon, the day after my cousin’s wedding, I decided to visit the McAvoy family farm near Rosetown, now run by my uncle Michael. Thanks to my brother John I got to spend a few hours pretending to be helpful.

I hadn’t been to Rosetown since I was a little girl. I remember a giant wood swing and my dad explaining the finer points of playing Anti-I-Over with his siblings; a game that involved throwing a ball over the barn. I stayed with my grandma when my brother was born and I remember her great burgundy couch that she called a chesterfield. I remember the illustrations from the story of the Little Match Girl that she read to me and that she found pleasingly sad. More than the room I stayed in, I remember being surrounded by thick darkness and giant silence. I also remember attending the summer parade where people on floats threw candy on to the street.

The farm is on a gravel road off from the paved one straddled by grain elevators and a Co-Op that runs through the town. Gravel roads are everywhere between giant fields, straight and dusty, and the big city intricacies are useless here where the scale explodes into miles instead of blocks and where the intuitive sense of cardinal points takes the place of street names. A rise in the landscape shows field gradations and the seams in between. It’s a minimalist beauty against the constant blue sky. The space feels boundless and distance is its own boundary. John and Michael both describe the land they work in sections or pieces of sections. Every section runs a mile long and a mile wide but it still feels vague even though I see it cut out in front of me.

It’s mid-September and the durum is ready to be swathed. The swather looks like a rust-red crab, pincers in air. I get to drive it perched in a cabin with a window slanted down to my feet and a clear view of the comb-like reel, the cutterbar, and the conveyor belts that gather and drop everything into a row behind me. I feel clumsy driving it. Operating a swather doesn’t take a licence and there are no pedals, only levers: the throttle, the speed (pushed forward from lowest to seven), and two buttons for adjusting the height of the cutterbar from the ground and the height of the reel from the cutterbar. The buttons are switch-activated and a yellow cap protects the switch.

It’s called “opening a field” when the swather cuts a few rows at the top and bottom widths of the field – and that’s what we do. Because one of the blades is broken, a skinny line of durum stalks remain standing and so John takes out a dusty plastic container of triangular blades, tools are gathered, a piece of guard is unbolted and screws are loosened. The swather sits like a patient at the dentist’s. I take pictures, rescue my purse from the dusty cabin, and admire the pretty swath with small bright green grasshoppers and large brown ones, eyeing me, deciding whether to take off or not as I try to zoom in. John had used the swather a few days before to gather Michael’s first field of lentils. Since they grow close to the ground, blades are easily broken if they hit a rock. It’s far more challenging to cut lentils than wheat, which makes my introduction to swathing seem like no big deal.

I cut a long row just before the sunset. Turning at the end of a row involves raising the reel and cutterbar and slowing down to realign the swather for a new row. The cutterbar is lowered to the right height, the reel follows automatically, and both are switched on. You’re not supposed to adjust the cutterbar while running at full throttle; I do this once, skipping a step in the procedure, and it makes John nervous. John and I look to one side as the swather cuts another slice. Sometimes I get distracted and a strand of wheat stalks stay standing.

There’s a feeling you get swathing a field, just before boredom, like a kind of fascination. The heads of wheat look so soft as they fall. I like the change in perspective, the reversal of what I’m used to. For a few hours, I’m the person in the field and not the driver on the road. When night falls and there is nothing but giant navy blue sky and the wheat the swather illuminates in a small semi-circle in front of us, it’s as if I can start to feel the land, as if I’m travelling across it like a meditation. Past generations spring up having done the same before; my dad, his dad… I’m flooded by feeling as my vision becomes limited to our little circle of light, the dust that billows around us, the night bugs that fly upward.  

I learn that the wheat changes when the sun goes down and the temperature drops. When John and I jump out of the swather to meet Michael standing at the end of the field, illuminated by our cabin lights, he takes me to the newly cut swath and grabs a handful of wheat and bends it. Stalks break, but not all of them, nor all at once, and this would be different during the day, under the sun. We look at the newly cut row and he shows me the stalks here and there that instead of being cut were merely bent downward, poorly shaved. The combine can’t pick up the swath anymore either, because the seeds no longer burst so easily from their shells and Michael tries to describe how the combine starts to labour and make noise. It’s the end of our work on the field. Michael grabs a bucket and collects a sample of grain from atop the grain truck. We climb into his diesel pickup and visit the yard, peering at it as far as the headlights will shine.

We stop at John’s house in town, where my car is parked, and Michael grabs the bucket of grain sample and lays a fistful on the counter. The grains aren’t all the same in appearance, which in spite of the good yield diminishes their quality. Quality is based on a grade system, one for best, seven for worst and Michael puts his crop at the low end. Some grains have bit of red from a fungus, others have a silvery white paper shell, a few are dark and hard, and the best ones are a pretty liquid honey colour. Singling out the pretty grains, he tells me that when his dad farmed, all the grain looked like that… it was always top grade. He says climate change has caused heavier dew on the fields in the morning and this affects the grain.

I know so little about farming my enthusiasm might be annoying. But today, I get to take a little piece of the farm experience with me, a convenient pocketsize piece, detached from the business, the worry, and the weather. I get to dip it in a family past and claim it for myself. I hope my kids will get pieces of their own someday.