By Trevor Bacque
The golden glamour of Canada’s top crop
If you spend more than five minutes in Canada, there’s a good chance you have seen a wheat field. It’s everywhere, and for good reason. Annually, almost 40 per cent of all crops planted are dedicated to wheat.1 The golden grain fields that dot rural Canada even pre-date Confederation.
How it all began
The first evidence of attempts to grow wheat in Canada took place on the country’s East Coast at Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, in the early 1600s. However, it wasn’t until 1842 that wheat took off, thanks to one man, and one vital strain of wheat.
Robert Fife was a Scottish immigrant who came to Canada as a teenager. In the winter of 1841-1842, Fife wrote a letter to a friend back home and asked him to send wheat seeds to cultivate at his farm along with wife Jane near Peterborough, Ontario. Most believe the seeds originated in the Galicia region. Fife slowly multiplied the wheat and other farmers were soon able to grow it as well. Its immediate qualities were plain to see—high yield and a natural ability to resist fungal diseases. Beyond that, it milled very well, producing a high-quality flour.
The reddish tinge to the plant gave it the name—Red Fife—along with homage to the farmer. The strain kickstarted an unbroken lineage of what we know today as Canada Western Red Spring wheat, or CWRS, or simply spring wheat. The wheat is famous for pan bread production.
As more seed became available Manitoba became a premier producer of Red Fife and boasted the top yields of the crop in all of Canada. By 1885, national production reached 580,000 acres and, at the same time, the government declared Red Fife to be the national standard against which all other wheats would be measured. By 1910, Red Fife wheat accounted for 56 per cent of all crops grown in Canada, a total of 7.6 million acres. The crop was so valuable, according to different historians, that it was a large impetus for the country’s immigration surge of the early 1900s. In the U.S., they imported Red Fife and marketed it as a premium product over their own wheat.
While Red Fife catalyzed the agricultural boom in many parts of Canada, it was another high-performance wheat called Marquis that carried the next generation of prosperity and cemented the country’s reputation as the breadbasket of the western hemisphere.
Charles Saunders was the man behind Marquis, arguably Canada’s most prominent wheat variety ever produced in terms of impact and economic value. In charge of the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, Ontario, Saunders isolated the winning variety in the winter of 1903/1904, a combination of two varieties—Red Fife and the Indian variety Hard Red Calcutta.
Marquis quickly ascended the throne. By 1918, 20 million acres of Marquis were grown across North America. The variety contributed $259 million to the Canadian economy. At the time, it was said that one-third of the value of a dollar came directly from the wheat grown in Canada. Marquis became the dominant variety for decades and supplanted Red Fife as the national wheat standard until 1980.
Modern times and the ubiquity of Canada’s wheat
Recently high-performing varieties continue to push the boundaries. For as long as Red Fife has been around, crop breeders were unable to break the “protein–yield” inverse link, which was that if a variety had higher protein, it would lower the yield, and vice-versa, but that changed with a variety named AC Barrie in 1993. The variety proved so popular that at its peak, it commanded 47.5 per cent of Western Canada’s wheat acres in 1999.
Today, the top varieties out-perform the generation prior. Varieties carry unique names such as Brandon, Viewfield, Starbuck. Breeders get the honour to name their wheat lines and often chose the names of towns near the main areas of production.
Each year, CWRS represents about 60 per cent of the wheat acres grown across Canada.2 For bakers, it’s preferred due to its high absorption of water and good loaf volume. It’s equally suitable to make hearth breads and flat breads. In Asian countries, CWRS is highly sought after in noodle production. The dough is high in extensibility and elasticity, which, during the dough stage, is of crucial importance for a uniform product.
Collectively, wheat provides a massive injection into Canada’s economy. Wheat drove an average of $42.8 billion into Canada’s economy between 2018-19 and 2020-21.3 During the same period, durum wheat, which is used mainly for making pasta products rather than bread products, contributed an average of $3.2 billion.4 Overall, 230,000 jobs are supported by the wheat industry.
Continual improvement focuses on disease research
Research on wheat has primarily focused on varieties that would work well in Canada’s short growing season. The faster a crop matures, the sooner it can be harvested, without risk of frost damage to the grains. Breeders also made efforts to create shorter, higher yielding varieties, which makes harvest time faster and more efficient.
Given wheat’s popularity, countless varieties have come to market since breeding began in earnest that are both high-yielding and able to withstand crop diseases. The biggest disease issues that have faced wheat farmers have been cereal rusts (stem, leaf and stripe rusts), common bunt and Fusarium head blight (FHB).
Rust is a fungus that generally affects the stem or the leaves of the plant and greatly diminishes what it can produce. Bunt is a fungus that systematically grows in the plant and replaces the grain with its massive black spores known as bunt balls. Crushed between a person’s fingers, it becomes visible and produces a fishy odour, diminishing yield and quality. While rust and bunt have known preventions—seed coatings and genetic resistance to produce healthy plants—controlling FHB is still a challenge to incorporate effective genetic resistance. Currently, the best farmers can do is attempt to minimize FHB damage by selecting resistant varieties, using certified seed, spraying fungicides if necessary and properly rotating crops year-to-year.
Virulent diseases, pests and weeds will always present problems, but there is a nonstop pipeline of wheat that only gets better. Improved resistance to lodging has made it possible to have more robust plants that have greater yield as well. (“Lodging” means that the plant stems are too weak to support the plant.) There is even research that focuses on drought and heat tolerance, an increasingly important issue.
Farmers enjoy growing wheat because varieties have strong agronomic packages—meaning the way they grow, mature and thrive in the field. Beyond that, we have a near-endless supply of countries that buy our wheat.
The next time you make a BLT, eat a bowl of Cheerios, or nibble on some pita and hummus, remember the wheat you enjoy is a result of the hard work by hundreds of researchers and wheat breeders, as well as the farmers who faithfully grow wheat each year.
If you think it’s just Canadians that enjoy our locally grown wheat, think again. Canada is a net exporter, not only of wheat, but all its major crops; meaning we export more than we consume. In 2022-23, Canada exported 19.6 million tonnes of wheat (and counting), a strong bounce back from a pandemic year (2021-22) where supply chain logistics caused disruptions. Our top 10 wheat customers may surprise people, but Canada’s reputation for high quality wheat is well-known globally. These sales alone add billions to Canada’s GDP and support thousands of farmers.
Canada’s varieties are also high quality. Wheat goes on a simple grading system. You either grow a #1, 2, 3 or animal feed. Canada’s CWRS often results in the top tier #1 wheat category. Other countries buy our #1 wheat and blend it off with their lower quality wheat to bring up the overall quality for their locally produced products.
These are the top 10 countries that Canada exported wheat to in 2021-22: #1 Japan, #2 Indonesia, #3 Colombia,#4 Peru,#5 China, #6 Ecuador, #7 Bangladesh, #8 United Kingdon, #9 Nigeria and #10 Mexico.
And in 2022-23: #1 China, #2 Indonesia, #3 Japan, #4 Peru, #5 Bangladesh, #6 Columbia, #7 Mexico, #8 Ecuador, #9 Nigeria and #10 United States.
- https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3210035901&pickMembers%5B0%5D=2.1&cubeTimeFrame.startYear=2020&cubeTimeFrame.endYear=2023&referencePeriods=20200101%2C20230101 ↩︎
- https://cerealscanada.ca/2022-wheat-crop/cwrs/ ↩︎
- https://cerealscanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/LMC_The-Economic-Impact-of-Common-Wheat-on-the-Canadian-Economy_January-2023.pdf ↩︎
- https://cerealscanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/LMC_The-Economic-Impact-of-Durum-Wheat-on-the-Canadian-Economy_January-2023.pdf ↩︎