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).