Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: canadian prairies

One kernel of wheat

How many people can be fed with one kernel of wheat?  David Fife fed millions.

The Fife family came to Canada from Scotland in 1820 when David was 15.  They settled in Otanabee township, east of Peterborough, Ontario .  When David was 20, he married Jane Becket and they began to farm on their own.  Farmers in this area were growing a winter wheat variety known as Siberian.  It did survive the cold winters, but was low yielding and susceptible to rust, a fungal disease that weakened the plant.

David Fife wrote to a friend in Glasgow asking for a sample of a better wheat.  His friend found a ship in the harbour, unloading wheat that had been loaded at Danzig and had probably been grown in Ukraine.  He managed to obtain a few kernels and sent them to David Fife.

The package of wheat kernels arrived just before seeding time in 1842.  Neither David Fife nor his friend knew if they were winter wheat or spring wheat.  David Fife planted half of the seeds in spring, planning to sow the rest in fall.  It must have been winter wheat, as the spring seeded grain did not mature — except for one plant which produced three heads of ripe grain.  David Fife planted the seeds from those three heads the next spring and continued to multiply the seed, until he harvested 240 bushels in 1848.  By then he knew that he had a variety of wheat that yielded much better than Siberian, matured early and was not susceptible to rust.   In addition, it had excellent milling and baking properties.

David Fife began to make this wheat available to his neighbours and by 1860 it had supplanted all other varieties of wheat grown in Canada.  Since the kernels were red and the variety was introduced by David Fife, it was given the name of Red Fife.  By the end of the nineteenth century Red Fife wheat had the reputation of being the world’s best spring wheat.

When the prairies began to be settled the first wheat grown was Red Fife.  The Prairies growing season was a little too short, though.  Charles Saunders crossed Red Fife and Hard Red Calcutta and selected the best cultivars to develop Marquis wheat, which made the western prairies a bread basket.  These varieties have been supplanted over the years, but are now making a small comeback, for reasons I will discuss in my next post.

It all started with a single kernel of wheat.  No one knows if that kernel of wheat came from a naturally occurring variant of the other wheat on that shipload, or if there were mixed varieties in that load.  Because of David Fife’s careful work in multiplying the wheat grown from that single kernel, that kernel has provided nourishment to millions of people.

Never think that the little bit that you have to offer is too insignificant to bother with.  ” For who hath despised the day of small beginnings?”  (Zechariah4:10, as it is in French translations of the Bible).

Why I am a flatlander

Some folks drive through the prairies on the Trans-Canada Highway and say there is nothing to see.  I, on the other hand, have driven for hours and days through the forests and rocks of northern Ontario, or Michigan Wisconsin and Minnesota, and found it depressing.  Then the trees disappear behind me, the vista of open prairie as far as the eye can see opens up before me, and I am HOME!

I have lived half my life away from Saskatchewan, family ties drew me back, but it is something more than family ties that holds me here.  There are things that bored travellers through the flatlands may never see or experience.

The shade of the massive spreading Manitoba maple in the corner of my mother’s garden sixty-five years ago.

The delicate fragrance and beauty of the Sweet Williams growing close to that tree.

The golden eagle up above my head, making no discernable movement of his wings, yet hovering in the same spot for minutes on end.

The tiny hummingbird, his wings a-buzzing, hovering just inches from my nose.

The taste of saskatoons picked fresh from the bushes of a river valley.

The wide, scalloped river valleys, created by tumultuous water flows ages ago, now with a little trickle of a stream flowing along a narrow channel.

A herd of pronghorn antelope, possibly the only animal on earth that could outrun a cheetah.

A whitetail deer appearing to float gracefully across a pasture, then effortlessly floating over a fence.

The huge buffalo rubbing stone in a hollow on a hillside, worn smooth by millions of buffalo.

The first crocus of spring appearing not far from that stone.

The brilliant red of a scarlet mallow growing close to the ground in the most improbable places.

Bright orange prairie lilies blooming in the ditches.

The spectacular flowers of prickly pear cactuses.

The song of the meadowlark, audible above the road noise and air conditioning while driving with the windows closed.

The song of the yellow warbler.

A field turned white in fall by snow geese pausing in their migration.

The loud conversations of sandhill cranes from a nearby pond.

Migrating flocks of Canada geese, snow geese, whistling swans, sandhill cranes, whooping cranes and a zillion kinds of ducks.

The serenade of brown thrashers in the morning, imitating the songs of robins and other birds.

Young male flickers going rat-a-tat-tat on metal chimneys and eaves troughs in spring to attract a mate.

Hordes of saffron meadow hawks (a beautiful dragon fly), like tiny helicopters criss-crossing the lawn in search of mosquitoes to devour.

The call of the great horned owl (called the grand duc d’amérique in French) in the evenings.

Watching a young grand duc solemnly walking up and down our yard, bending over every once in a while to eat a grasshopper.

Seeing his massive wing spread when he flies up to a post to get a better view.

The long, long days of summer.

Spectacular sunsets.

After a long winter, seeing the barren landscape explode into vibrant, lush green life.

Suspicions of Suppression

Some years ago, a backyard mechanic on the Canadian prairies designed and built a carburetor that got fantastic gas mileage with no sacrifice of performance.  He drove a car equipped with this carburetor from Winnipeg to Vancouver, averaging 130 miles per gallon for the trip (or 107 miles per US gallon).

Or did he drive 217 miles on the prairies using only 1 gallon of gasoline?  News reports seemed to differ in the details.

In any case, the news reports caused a sudden drop in the stock market values of oil company stocks.  One day some oil company executives showed up on the inventor’s doorstep with a suitcase full of cash and bought the plans for this wonder carburetor and all the complete and incomplete carburetors that he had built.

Or was it auto industry executives?

Or was it the government, fearing a loss in tax revenue?

Or did thieves break into his shop and steal everything?

Whatever really happened, this invention that could have saved billions of dollars for consumers has been suppressed.  Occasionally however, a car that gets fantastic gas mileage is mistakenly delivered to a customer.  Fairly soon the car is recalled by the manufacturer for some supposed manufacturing defect; when it is returned to the customer, it gets normal gas mileage.

Or the owner wakes up in the middle of the night and sees some men working under the hood of his car.  When they realize they have been seen they quickly make their getaway.  The car still drives just fine, only now it uses a whole lot more gasoline.

Or the car is stolen in the night.  This is all the work of a sinister industrial conspiracy to keep us using as much gasoline as possible.

The reality?  Back in the 1930’s Charles Nelson Pogue of Winnipeg obtained patents for a carburetor that he believed would dramatically increase gas mileage.  Gasoline was passed through a spiral line that was heated by the exhaust manifold.  This was supposed to completely vaporize the gas before it entered the combustion chamber which would make it burn more efficiently.  This process would also increase the engine temperature by about 20°, which would enhance performance.

Mr. Pogue never claimed to have achieved the promised results.  Nevertheless the story took off, fuelled by the public’s desire to believe in technological money-saving miracles and their willingness to believe conspiracy theories.

The patent for the Pogue carburetor has now expired and the plans are available for anyone who wants to experiment on their family sedan.

It won’t work.  The gasolines in use today need to reach 450° F to completely vaporize.  Gasoline was more volatile when Mr. Pogue invented his carburetor. Apparently there were working models built back then.  They did achieve slightly better fuel mileage, at the cost of severely reduced performance.

Common sense would tell us that no auto manufacturer would find it advantageous to suppress such an invention.  If one company could produce vehicles that got far better gas mileage than all their competitors, wouldn’t they jump at the opportunity?

The idea that increasing engine temperature will increase efficiency lacks some logic as well.  If an internal combustion engine could be made 100% efficient, all the energy in the fuel would be transformed into work, not heat, and the exhaust manifold would be cold.

Very real gains in fuel efficiency have been achieved since Mr. Pogue invented his carburetor.  They have been small, incremental gains, but they add up.  Carburetors have been replaced by fuel injection.  Engine computers manage more efficient fuel burning.  Radial tires have reduced rolling resistance.  Synthetic motor oils reduce friction in the engine.  Lighter, more aerodynamic vehicles require less work from the engine to move them down the road.  Most cars now have four or five speed transmissions, reducing fuel use at cruising speeds.  Some engines are designed to allow some cylinders to cut out at cruising speeds.

Nevertheless, stories of the suppressed 200 mpg carburetor refuse to die.  Why are we so gullible?

Everyone likes the idea of saving money.   Many of us have a near mystical faith that technology will eventually solve all our problems.  But it would serve us well to develop a healthy scepticism when we hear whispers that the government, or industry, or some other sinister force doesn’t want us to know about  some almost miraculous breakthrough in technology.

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