AT RISK – Endangered Canadian Wheat

31 Oct 2003

In our carbohydrate fearing age, it is easy to forget that wheat was a celebrated staple of ancient civilizations. The human body has an intimate relationship with wheat and both have evolved together over millennia in adaptation to new environments. Sacred holidays in many ancient religions honor the planting and harvest of wheat. Even the Empress of the ancient Tarot stands beside sheaves of ripened wheat that symbolize her symbiotic relationship with nature and the harvest of life.

By our modern tally however, wheat equals carbs and calories to be strictly limited or avoided altogether. If I were more of a cynic I would say that, sadly, our relationship with wheat and its seed continues to be a metaphor for our relationship with nature and our food systems. “Seed is a metaphor for many things,” muses Canadian heritage wheat farmer Sharon Rempel from Alberta, “of new ideas, of potential, of much that humanity could be doing. with nature instead of domination.” Rempel co-ordinates the Heritage Wheat Project. She has been growing wheat since1988 when she worked as part of the Living Museum of Wheat in Keremeos, in central British Columbia. Her experiences with heritage seed and their abolition by bio tech giants like Monsanto radicalized her farming to the point that she began developing a heritage seed bank which in turn inspired her to establish Seeds of Diversity, a national heritage seed bank, and the Seedy Saturdays community seed exchange program.

Now, heritage wheats are under a new threat and recently Rempel visited Vancouver Island looking to diversity her crop locations. Currently, Canadian prairie wheat farmers are embroiled in a lawsuit against GM seed giant Monsanto from growing genetically modified wheat crops on the prairies. In the 1990s, GM canola crops growing in limited test sites ‘drifted’ infecting non-GM crops and effectively destroying the integrity of non-GM canola seed throughout the region. Wheat farmers believe the same will happen if GM wheat is allowed on the prairies even in limited test sites. If GM wheats infect their crops, they argue that the bio-diversity and genetic heritage of other wheats will be lost.

One such wheat is Red Fife, the celebrated first nominee to the Canadian Slow Food Ark of Taste. Red Fife first came to Canada in 1842 through struggling farmer David Fife. The origin of the wheat is unknown, but myth and legend have filled in the gaps. Only a few grains of the handful of unidentified wheat that Fife’s received from a friend in Europe flourished and many believe that it was a hybrid wrought from existing plants and the unidentified European variety. This hybrid grew strong and without the rust that plagued other strains of wheat. Its milled grain also boasted a rich, full flavor and excellent baking quality that was prized in the wheat market. (Modern grading of wheat does not acknowledge taste as a factor in evaluating a wheat’s merit). Red Fife was perfectly adapted to the Canadian climate and became the wheat that opened the Canadian prairies to farming in the 1880s.

According to specialists with Agriculture Alberta, all wheat varietals grown in Canada today owe their parentage to Red Fife wheat, which is now grown by only a handful of heirloom farmers. One such farmer is Marc Loiselle of Vonda, Saskatechewan on the Prairies. He is the fifth generation running the historic family organic farm and has been a strong force in the lawsuit against Monsanto to keep GM wheat off the Prairies. “Saving heritage seeds such as Red Fife is necessary to keep genetic diversity intact,” explains a dedicated Loiselle. He began growing Red Fife three years ago when he became intrigued with the idea of growing the first wheat introduced to the Canadian Prairies. “I wanted to be able to grow wheat that my great grandfathers would have grown,” he says, adding that, to date, his Red Fife crops have performed very well and next year he is planning to increase his Red Fife production to serve the increasing interest by artisan bakers from Vancouver Island.

“Red fife is really a symbol of the 100,000 varieties of bread wheat in the world that grow well without chemicals,” explains Rempel from her home on the range in Alberta. It is also a symbol of Canadian farming history, and it makes a fine loaf a bread. Which inspired Victoria artisan baker Cliff Leir of Wild Fire, “I’m looking for wheat that’s bred for flavor not gluten,” he explains from his popular organic bakery. Leir has built an enviable reputation within the local culinary community for his work with wild yeast fermentation in creating true artisan loaves. Recently he purchased Red Fife grain from the Prairies and had it milled locally on Salt Spring Island. Then began a month of experimentation, the results of which Leir presented at the Vancouver Island Slow Food Convivium’s Red Fife Ark launch on September 14. As he talks about Red Fife wheat Leir becomes increasingly excited at the idea of locally growing and milling wheat for Wild Fire. It is now a question of whether wheat can be successfully grown on South Vancouver Island.

“We can do an outstanding job growing grains here,” says, Micheal Doehnel. He has been heritage wheat farming on the Saanich Peninsula just outside of Victoria on Vancouver Island for the past five years growing the 6,000 year old Egyptian Emmer as well as Black Einkorn wheat. “We classify as a sub-Mediterranean climate,” explains Doehnel of the south Vancouver Island micro-climate, which is ideal for growing winter grains.

As for the spring wheats like red fife, Doehnel believes they will perform well. As with Rempel and Leir, Doehnel is passionate about his grains. “Wheat is the driving force of humanity,” he avers, and a good look at the history books shows that his statement holds more than a grain of truth.

J. Sushil Saini is a food and culture writer for Monday Magazine and EAT Magazine

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