David Fife and Red Fife Wheat
This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.
In 1842, David Fife developed Red Fife Wheat, the dominant wheat grown in Western Canada for 60 years – 1860 to 1910. Red Fife is the male parent of Marquis Wheat which, in 1915, supplanted Red Fife as the dominant Canadian wheat.
Sharon Rempel’s Heritage Wheat Project in 1988 marked the beginning of the Red Fife Wheat Revival. Artisan bakers prefer Red Fife due to its purity (no GMO), wholesome, nutty taste, milling qualities and nutritious taste.
Why is Red Fife Wheat important? Agriculture Canada provides substantial information on their website. The most comprehensive report on Red Fife Wheat and its role in the development of the Canadian economy and history is an essay by Stephan Symko. It is titled:
From a single seed – Tracing the Marquis Wheat success story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine.
In the Preface, Fedak explains that Symko was born in the Ukraine in 1911, began his career at Agriculture Canada’s Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa where he worked in cereal breeding and research until he retired in 1976. Fedak concludes his Preface with the following paragraph.
“The author passed away in 1992 without seeing his work published. This Internet publication will do justice to his efforts. It is a reminder of a forgotten heritage – the importance of Red Fife wheat and its successors, including Marquis and many later varieties, to Canada’s agriculture and especially the development of the West. It is also a testament to the work of Canada’s Experimental Farm System and the work of its pioneer scientists.”
In his essay, Symko’s Conclusion is titled,
The Three Pillars
To me, the history of Canada’s leading varieties is important because it connects Ukraine and Canada in what I believe is an important chapter of the history of world agriculture. It has three equally important elements: the Halychanka (Red Fife) Ukrainian wheat, the pioneer David Fife who brought it to Canada, and the pioneer wheat breeders who developed our many successful strains from it. These elements have not yet received the recognition they deserve in the literature. As this study is intended to contribute toward this recognition, let us consider, in concluding, these three pillars, on which I believe Canada’s success in wheat research rests.
Halychanka (Red Fife) Wheat
The value to Canada of this wheat may be summed up as follows:
- Thousands of institutions, industries, provinces, towns, factories, cereal farmers, and large businesses have benefited from the harvest of Red Fife wheat and of its derivative varieties.
- In 1842 a small area of David Fife’s field was Canada’s first experimental farm.
- Bountiful harvests over the next few years multiplied the amount of grain. Red Fife wheat made Ontario a wheat-producing province.
- The settlement of the Prairies would likely not have succeeded as well, and the Sifton immigration may not have taken place. The year 1908 would not have seen towns such as Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, and Edmonton built where they are now. At best, the Prairies would have been cattle- ranching country.
- Ontario Red Fife wheat found its way west, where it became the most important factor in pushing back the prairie grass and establishing thousands of prosperous farmers.
- This was the first and greatest contribution to the economic wealth of western Canada and other parts of Canada. It pushed the borders of the Prairies hundreds of miles to the north and opened up vast expanses of new land.
- Up until 1905 the wheat from the Otonabee farmer retained its dominance over all other Canadian varieties.
- Halychanka (Red Fife) was the wheat that gave Canada the proud title of “Granary of the Empire.”
- Red Fife wheat was the prime factor not only in the development of the West and in making Canada one of the world’s grain producers but also in the establishment and expansion of numerous towns and in the development of this relatively young country into a rich, economically strong, industrial nation.
Ode to David Fife
This is the story of David Fife
And how he developed the staff of life
Searching for a solution
To agricultural pollution
Wheat crops ravaged by frost and rust
Finding a better grain was a must
He searched in Canada and Scotland too
He obtained some seeds from a friend he knew
A new strain of wheat from a ship docked in Glasgow
Save some for the spring, plant the rest now
The fall planting did not survive
The spring planting did indeed thrive
In 1842, David Fife developed Red Fife Wheat
For 50 years, Red Fife reigned supreme and could not be beat
The wheat known as Red Fife
Has a renewed shelf life
In 2003, Slow Food Canada nominated Red Fife for the Ark of Taste
Renowned for its nutty and robust flavor, it should not go to waste
Organic farmers consider it the best heritage wheat
Discriminating consumers consider it a nutritious treat
Artisan bakers use a slow wild yeast fermentation
To develop a richer and fuller wheat taste sensation
Chefs discovered its hearty flavor
And diners have bread they can savor
Red Fife has been rediscovered; it is a revival
Red Fife’s place in history is more than archival
Red Fife is a story of myth and legend and mystery
Who is David Fife and where is his place in history
And what about Jane, his wife
Who played a key role in developing Red Fife
There is much to tell and the tale should be told
Children should know it before they grow old
Without David Fife, who knows what might have been
The story begins with David at age fifteen.
Note - this is the first page of a 14 page poem written by Gary Fife, great-great grandson of David Fife.