Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Stony ground

Matthew 13:5 Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
6 And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
20 But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it;
21 Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.

Jesus told a parable about a man who went out to sow his grain by hand and didn’t seem to be all that particular about where the seed landed. Some landed on hard packed trails, some on stony ground and some among thorns and thistles. I was a Saskatchewan farm boy, I got the picture, he was just throwing his seed away. Some even landed on soil that was cultivated, weed and stone free, and it grew to produce more seed for the man to throw around the next spring.

Preachers loved to read this parable to us and urge us to get out there and break up that hard-packed soil of our hearts, pull the weeds and thistles and clear away the stones, so the good seed of the Word of God could take root and grow. It all made sense to Saskatchewan preachers and farm boys.

Stones seem to grow on about half the farm land in Saskatchewan. You go out in the spring and pick stones on a field and by next spring there is a fresh crop of stones on the field. Where did they come from? Long, long ago stone boats were invented to help move stones from fields. They were flat sleds made of planks nailed to timber runners and pulled by oxen or horses. Later, tractor drawn wagons were used, but the actual rock picking was done by hand.

I picked rocks one day with a helper who was physically capable, yet unable to decide on his own if a stone was big enough to be picked or small enough that it would cause no harm if it was left. He was a willing worker, but had to ask me about every stone he saw.

About 60 years ago a farmer somewhere in Saskatchewan built himself a tractor-drawn machine with heavy duty teeth on the front, spaced so that smaller stones would fall between and the bigger ones would be scooped into a pan as it was pulled through a field. It was equipped with hydraulic cylinders to dump the load of stones at some location off of the field. Before long there were farmers all over the place working in their shops to build their own version of rock picker; some of these farm shops developed into industrial operations.

That pretty much eliminated the back-breaking labour of rock picking. The reason the rocks had to come off the field was because they damaged farm equipment. When cultivator shovels and other tillage tools are continually bouncing off of rocks it reduces their life span. The shaking and rattling doesn’t do good things for the frame of the implement either.

I knew of a father and son who didn’t ever bother to pick rocks, or make any attempt to control the weeds in their fields. It seems strange to call guys hillbillies when they lived on the flat prairie, but I can’t think of a better label. Their home was pretty basic and there was never any sign of a woman around. I wondered if they might have some source of income other than the pitiful crops they produced on their land.

One spring they announced that they were going modern. They bought registered seed wheat and fertilizer. The weeds grew super high. The wild mustard resembled another parable of Jesus, with birds perching on the branches. They still had to maneuver their equipment around the rocks when they seeded and harvested, I wondered if they didn’t leave as much grain in the field as they put in their bins.

But what do stones have to do with hindering root growth? That was what Jesus talked about in his parable and I guess I missed it for years. You know, you hear a story repeated for years and just take it in the way it is told. But then you go back to the source and read the words of Jesus, and all of a sudden it just doesn’t add up. What does that part of the parable mean?

About that time, my wife and I took a trip to St. Lawrence County, New York, where my grandparents grew up. This is straight south of Ottawa, not far south of the St. Lawrence River. We visited several of my second-cousins. They were all dairy farmers, or retired dairy farmers. That seemed to be the only kind of farming that was viable in that county. As we drove around, we saw areas of exposed bedrock and were told that most fields had only six inches of soil, below that was solid bedrock. They could grow hay and silage crops, but grain crops would dry up before they matured, because the summer heat would dry the soil down to the rock.

The light went on. This is what Jesus was talking about. There are probably many fields like this in the areas where He walked. Comparing this to Christian life portrays the person who receives the gospel with enthusiasm, but the enthusiasm is only superficial. When the heat is on, it becomes apparent that the good seed never took root in the hardness of their heart.

Is the state of such people absolutely hopeless? I don’t believe it is. There are trees growing in St. Lawrence County. Their fine roots find tiny fissures in the rocks, take hold, find what nourishment they can and grow. As those tiny roots grow, they split the rocks and more fissures develop. Finally you have a tree that is firmly rooted and grounded and immune to pretty well anything nature can throw at it.

Learning the grain business

This temporary job with United Grain Growers lasted about seven years. The Moose Jaw elevator was only a few years old, still one of the old style wooden elevators, but with a scale and hoist that would accommodate a semi. Albert Simmie was the manager, nearing retirement and needing a helper.

My job was pretty menial at first, sweeping the floor, shovelling out the flat bottom bins, stacking fertilizer and seed grain bags. Occasionally I got to weigh a truck. One day a semi with a dry van trailer pulled in to the elevator and the driver asked to have it weighed before he delivered the load to the grocery warehouse. His load was watermelon from Texas and he had driven all the way without stopping to sleep. He looked it too. That would have been at least 2,000 miles. If I remember correctly, he gave both Albert and I a watermelon before pulling out.

The elevator was about 14 blocks from my parents’ home, an easy walk. The grain dust bothered my allergies but I did not have any serious problem. After about six weeks the District Manager told me I was needed at Davidson. Davidson was on the Number 11 highway, the second town north of Craik where I had grown up. There was a row of nine elevators in town, run by four companies. UGG owned two of them.

I was sent to help Jake Thom, an elderly man on the verge of retirement. He was a widower, living in a tiny old two bedroom house where he had raised his family. I occupied one of the bedrooms and spent my days in the elevator and learned a little more about the grain business.

The land around Davidson is lighter and does not have the moisture holding capacity of soils in some other parts of Saskatchewan. The growing year had started with abundant moisture and grain grew lush and tall. Then the rains stopped. There was a field clearly visible from the elevator office and I watched as a combine went round and round that field before it had to stop to unload. The wheat kernels were not plump but shrivelled that fall, low in bushel weight and a low grade but still could be used for making flour.

UGG had a carpenter crew busy building and renovating houses for their grain elevator managers. I got to see them often over the next few years. They had built a new house for the manager of the other UGG elevator in Davidson and when he and his family moved into the new house Jake got the one they had been living in and I moved in with him.

After a couple months in Davidson the district manager came around again and said I was needed in Bladworth, the next town north on the Number 11. I moved in with the manager and his family and spent my days in the elevator. As best as I can remember, this was where I first began to acquire a taste for beer. Every once in a while I would wander over to the beer parlour in the evening and have a cold beer or two. I thought it was refreshing and helped wash down the grain dust I had been tasting all day. The problem was the beer wouldn’t stay down, invariably I had to make a stop at the outhouse, otherwise unused, and let it all come back up again.

Winter was coming on now, the elevators weren’t busy and some managers wanted to take a winter vacation. My next stop was Condie, north of Regina, a place with two elevators but no town. I lived in the manager’s house, an older two storey affair, while he was gone.  Jake Thom’s old house from Davidson had been moved in beside this old house. The UGG carpenter crew proceeded to take off the roof and both end walls and begin transforming it into a brand new bungalow. Thee was a reason for this way of doing things: it could be claimed as renovation and all expenses claimed in the year they were incurred. To start from scratch would require the expenses to be amortized over a number of years.

After Condie I was sent to Craik, my old home town. I stayed in a room in the hotel, just across the tracks from the elevator. This was a pretty quiet time but it seemed the company was preparing me for long term employment. As spring drew near the district manager told me the manager of the elevator in the village of Belle Plaine was quitting. Belle Plaine is between Moose Jaw and Regina on the Trans Canada highway. The location was great and I jumped at the opportunity.

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).

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