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Marquis: The most famous wheat variety of the 20th century

If the butterfly effect had to find its manifestation in the world of wheat, it would definitely choose Marquis as its mascot.

There has been a lot said about it in the baking world, and this piece at Grist and Toll puts it together beautifully.

For a deeper understanding, we thought we will delve into parts of the story which aren't in the mainstream:

For beginners, up until just a hundred years ago, the seeds flowed freely across the world. They were not any individual's or corporate's intellectual property, rather were nature's property.

And rightly so, the farming community across the globe has been making selections of wheat varietals and has been preserving them for over 10,000 years.

Fast Forward:

Marquis is one such wheat variety which changed Canada's agricultural world forever. To understand this, we have to understand the history of Marquis's parent wheat varieties.

The particular anecdotes here are in the context of a series of events between 1812-1912, that's right, a century, which led to the development of world famous Marquis wheat.

In 1812, a small group of 22 settlers from Scotland came to Western Canada, to colonise the 160,000 square miles of territory granted to them by the the Hudson’s Bay Company. These settlers came to the area where the Red River meets the Assiniboine on 30 August 1812 and planted the winter wheat they had brought with them.

However, between 1812 and 1820, year after year, due to one or the other natural calamities, the wheat crop failed and finally the entirety of that wheat seed was destroyed.

1812: This wheat planted way too late as a winter wheat and was completely wasted.

1813 and 1814: The same wheat was planted as a spring harvest, but has very poor harvest, due to inexperience in grain farming of settlers, who were fishermen.

1815 and 1816: In June, the northeastern indigenous Métis tribes attacked and destroyed everything the colonists had built.

1817: A hurricane destroyed everything in the fall.

1818: There was a good harvest of wheat, however the grasshopper plague in July devoured everything. People stared at the sky and wept. After the plague, the settlers moved to Pembina and avoided starvation by hunting buffalo.

1819: New grasshoppers appeared from the eggs laid the previous year, destroying everything by end of June. Even the rivers were glutted with billions of grasshoppers.

By 1820, no seed remained for the settlement.

And then again in the spring of 1820, around 6800kg of new wheat seed was brought from Mississippi in the United States.

From 1820 on, the Red River settlers had no shortage of grain until 1868 when the grasshoppers returned and destroyed all the crops once more.

The whole continent was very wild and harsh at that time. The land was overgrown, uncultivated and difficult to tame by the early European settlers. They found themselves under continuous attack by a seemingly hostile nature armed with an endless assortment of powerful natural weapons such as pests, plant diseases (rust, mould, rot), storms, floods, and rapid temperature changes.

There are no records on the varieties of wheat planted or the exact locations of the fields. Some authors mention that in certain places farmers had brought seed wheat with them from England to Canada. As it appears from these records, each variety was considered good if it gave any yield at all. In general it appears that there were no good varieties of wheat here at that time as there are frequent references to farmers looking for better varieties as if for a most valuable commodity.

The quality of spring wheat in the early part of the nineteenth century was poor. This created a problem. The Canadian climate was not always favourable for the cultivation of winter wheat, which in any case was often attacked by diseases like rust, which would destroy some or all of the crop. There were no varieties of wheat that could meet the growing season requirements of Canada’s climate. In addition, the colony lacked skilled farmers. Otherwise Canada’s vast territories might have produced immense quantities of grain very early on, which could have played a major role in the development of its economy.

A wheat crop of a size that would allow exports was just a dream, both for the pioneer farmers and for the government.

This dream was to be fulfilled decades later with the appearance of a West Ukrainian (from Halychyna and Volyn) Wheat called Halychanka. It arrived at a small farm run by David Fife in Otonabee, Canada West, in 1842. The wheat had various name, most popular one being, Red Fife. Red Fife is named “red” for its colour when fully ripe and “Fife” after David Fife; however, American farmers may know this wheat as Canadian Fife, Fife, Saskatchewan Fife, or Scotch Fife.

In 1860 J.W. Clarke, a Wisconsin farmer, harvested a bumper crop of Red Fife wheat averaging about 36 bu per acre. He was so pleased with this harvest that he wrote a letter to The Country Gentleman and Cultivator magazine describing his success and recommending this new variety of wheat to all farmers. Almost incidentally he introduced the originator of this wheat, David Fife, a farmer from Otonabee in Canada West, now Ontario.

The cultivation of this wheat in the United States spread very quickly. Soon after the Clark article appeared in 1860, Red Fife was being grown in Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Clark’s own Wisconsin.

The population of the Red River area in 1870 totalled 12,800. However the land under cultivation was still very limited. There were no stores to buy household supplies: they had to be either produced at home or ordered from the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). There were farms only between Upper and Lower Fort Garry on the Red River and along the northern bank of the Assiniboine River.

It was possible to produce grain only within two miles of those rivers. The first settlers to cultivate Canada’s prairie soil successfully were Mennonites who had moved to the southern part of Manitoba from Ukraine in 1875.

Until 1882, the amount of wheat grown in Manitoba barely exceeded the local demand. Also, until 1870, all grain was milled between millstones at traditional water-powered mills. This method produced better flour from winter wheat, as it was impossible to separate out the bran from spring wheat with this process. Even a small amount of bran residue made the flour dark. Although the quality of flour made out of spring wheat was lower than that of winter wheat, good bread could still be made with spring wheat flour. The loaf rose well even if it was of a darker colour. However, because of the dark colour, the price for spring wheat was lower.

The technical revolution which took place in flour-milling between 1870 and 1880 facilitated wider growing of Red Fife and other spring wheat varieties in Western Canada and the American Great Plains. The first purifier capable of separating out 100% of the bran, even from spring wheat, was invented by the French engineer Perrigault and introduced into Minnesota in 1870. It ground wheat not with millstones but between steel rollers. This invention made it possible to make spring wheat flour that was every bit as good as that milled from the best winter wheat. It created a huge demand for spring wheat, whose flour was suddenly in demand throughout North America and on world markets. As a result, the demand for Red Fife seed in Canada grew and our wheat fields expanded. A large quantity of Red Fife seed was brought into Manitoba from Minnesota.

In 1878 a new rail line provided a direct transportation link between St. Paul and St. Boniface. Canadian farmers and grain traders were sure that there would be a good market for wheat in Western Canada as well, when the Prairies got their rail connection to the Pacific ports.

At about the same time, the Government of Canada decided to set up a series of experimental farms to improve Canada’s agriculture, make professional and scientific assistance available to farmers, and generally facilitate the development of agriculture in this country.

In 1886 a Canadian parliamentary commission appointed pharmacist Dr. William Saunders as the first Director of the Dominion Experimental Farm in Ottawa and gave him the task of organizing Canada’s experimental farms. At a time when biology was still in its infancy, Saunders was interested in plant breeding: he grew food plants like apple trees, gooseberries, currants, and raspberries. He spent his spare time improving these plants by means of new scientific crossing methods, with a good deal of success. He also established a program for the improvement of wheat. At first he ran the program himself with a few assistants. Eventually he managed to interest his sons in botany: both became professionals in the field.

Saunders spent his first year on the job travelling, studying Canada’s soils and its unstable climate, and trying to find out what its farmers needed. What did farmers in this new country need? Some grain growers said, “We need to find a way to grow grain even when there’s no rain from June to July” or “We need a wheat we can harvest before the August frosts.” Others reported good harvests of Red Fife even in dry years.

By the time he returned to Ottawa, Saunders had developed a good idea of what Canada’s farmers needed. In particular, he recognized the value of Halychanka (Red Fife) wheat to the young nation’s agriculture.Then he set to work to meet the various needs of Canada’s grain growers by importing different wheat varieties from around the world. Some came from the Far North in Russia, near the Arctic Circle; some from northern Europe; some had been grown at different altitudes — from 500 to 11,000 feet, which is the limit for wheat growing, in the Himalayan mountains in India. Others came from the United States, Australia, and Japan.

After his tour of Western Canada, Saunders knew that new wheat varieties for the Canadian climate could be developed only through scientific crossing methods. Desirable hereditary properties of individual varieties had to be selected from the progeny of parents with the required genes.

The first crossings were carried out at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa on 19 July 1888. William Saunders, his sons A.P. and Charles, and their assistants W.T. Macoun and J.L. McMurray carried out hundreds of crossings, always with one of the descendants of the Halychanka (Red Fife) variety. The results were published in the Experimental Farm annual reports.

In 1892, A.P. Saunders was sent to Western Canada to conduct crossing experiments at the experimental farms in Brandon (Manitoba), Indian Head (Saskatchewan), and Agassiz (British Columbia). All the grain obtained from these crossings was sent to Ottawa where the chief researcher made a selection from the next generations.

By 1901, 58 new hybrids with the required characteristics had been selected and could become new varieties after further work. Some were sent to farmers in the West for further research in order to establish their practical value.

In 1903, grain research was headed by Charles Saunders, who established his headquarters at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa and carried out a review of a great number of selections there.

In 1904, he discovered a new variety called Marquis. It was a cross between the early-ripening Indian wheat Hard Red Calcutta and Red Fife made by his brother A.P. in 1892 at the Experimental Farm in Agassiz, British Columbia.

Hard Red Calcutta is a commercial name for a peculiar variety of wheat which is in fact a mixture of several varieties. So there is some doubt that this was the very type used as the maternal ancestor in this crossing. Several generations of crossings had resulted in a mixture of types, including Marquis. Studying spike after spike systematically for years, Charles Saunders had to make a judgement call on the quality of each wheat variety.

During the winter of 1903-1904 he did not have a proper laboratory, a mill for grinding wheat, or an oven for baking bread. However, he would take a few grains from each stalk, chew them and decide on their probable flour and bread quality on the basis of the dough created in his mouth. The individual ancestors of the Marquis variety were produced between 1904 and 1906.

In the winter of 1906-1907 the laboratory, which by now had equipment for flour milling and bread making, fully confirmed his original assessments, when teeth substituted for a mill and a mouth for an oven.

In 1907, 23 pounds of Marquis grain were sent from Ottawa to the Indian Head Experimental Farm for a full-scale field trial.

In 1908 the new grain was sent to the Experimental Farm in Brandon, Manitoba.

In the spring of 1909 distribution of the new variety to the public began. Four hundred samples were sent to farmers throughout Western Canada. Marquis wheat was thus disseminated throughout Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. It also found its way to Kamloops, British Columbia, then crossed into the United States. It attracted attention in every wheat-growing country because of the surprisingly high quality of its grain and flour, its early ripening (several days earlier than Red Fife), high yield, and the fact that its straw does not lie flat. The introduction of Marquis was the greatest practical triumph of Canadian agriculture.

When some American farmers — in North and South Dakota, Minnesota and neighbouring states — sowed small amounts of this new Canadian variety, the first harvest established its reputation. It was in 1912 that North Dakota first imported several carloads of this wheat.

When the first Marquis harvest came to the large Minneapolis mills, the millers immediately noticed its excellent milling and baking qualities. Other Northwestern States soon followed suit: for example, the Toddy Russel Miller Milling Company in Minneapolis ordered 100,000 bu of Marquis from the Angus Mackay Farm Seed Company of Indian Head, near Regina, in the fall of 1913.

To be sure that this large shipment would be of first-class purity, the company hired Professor H. L. Bolly, Seed Commissioner for North Dakota, to inspect the fields from which the seed was to come.

In 1914 Canada expanded its Marquis exports to Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Washington. That year saw fully half a million acres of American wheat fields sown with Marquis, yielding an American harvest of seven million bu — 3.36 million in Minnesota and the Dakotas alone.

In the United States, Marquis wheat replaced, either wholly or in part, all spring varieties grown at that time and even some winter ones. It became popular in both the central and northwestern states.

In 1918 American and Canadian farmers sowed Marquis on more than twenty million acres from southern Nebraska to northern Saskatchewan — a range of more than 800 miles.

The Indian Female Parent: Hard Red Calcutta

Hard Red Calcutta, the female parent of Marquis, was a wheat imported into Canada by William Saunders for research at the Experimental Farms. Samples were sent to farmers all across Canada. Twenty-eight were sent out in 1892: but even though it ripens two to three weeks before Red Fife, its small yield, tendency to shatter, very short straw, and other deficiencies caused it to fail as a commercial variety for Canadian conditions.

In 1892 it was crossed with Red Fife in the hope of creating an early-ripening wheat with the quality of Red Fife. The generation after this crossing was diverse. No notes about the first generation (F1) survive, although there are some on the first generation of the Marquis hybrid in Buller. Nor is there a single analysis of subsequent generations (F1, F2, F3, etc.). We do not know the generation in which the selection began: there was a mixture of varieties and characteristics. The type of Indian wheat used for crossing is also unknown. As Calcutta Red was a mixture of both red and white grains, the colour of the maternal ancestor is similarly unknown.

Finding the lost notes on the analysis of selection of the Marquis variety would be of great interest to growers and geneticists today. It became a very important food product that powered the agricultural economy of both Canada and the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.

Early Marquis harvests were huge:

  • 1917 - more than 250 million bu worth $500 million; and

  • 1918 - more than 300 million bu worth $600 million.

The value of wheat produced in the three western provinces of Canada between 1910 and 1948 comes to more than $17.5 billion. More than 80% of this total was from Marquis wheat.


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