Seed fit for a King:
Before I came back from Saskatchewan, I went to visit the Seager Wheeler National Historic site. Why? Because I have always wanted to sow, grow, harvest, thresh and grind wheat–and then turn it into my own bread, using my own sourdough culture (which I caught in New Zealand, but more about that later). If I am to go to this effort, then why not do it with wheat that was developed by the most influential wheat grower of his day in North America?
Having done my research before leaving Saskatchewan, I discovered that Seager Wheeler is known as the ‘King of Wheat’ in Canada–though not many people have heard of him: (see http://www.seagerwheelerfarm.org/ for more information). But for those in the know, he’s tops. For many years running, he grew the best wheat in Canada and won international awards for his efforts: he was crowned World Wheat King an unsurpassed five times, from 1911 to 1918. He came to Canada in 1885 at age 17, walked from Moose Jaw, Sask., north across 180 miles of virtual desert country to live in a hole in the bank of the South Saskatchewan River–and taught himself to farm.
The wheat that he developed, Marquis 10B (a cross between Hard Red Calcutta and Red Fife), extended the growing area 100 miles farther north, and opened up Alberta’s Peace River Valley to farming. Farmers in northern U.S. states clamored for his wheat seed, which accounted for 80 per cent of the wheat grown on the continent. By the 1920’s, Marquis wheat accounted for nearly 90% of the wheat grown in North America. There is a growing interest in the Red Fife among the heritage seed savers and enthusiastic bakers, though I’m not sure why they’re overlooking the Marquis, a Canadian heirloom.
So I toured Wheeler’s farm north of Saskatoon, and bought some of his wheat seed: 750 precious grams!
The bucket list:
Growing wheat has been on my top-ten list of things I must do–aka my ‘Bucket List’–for years now. In fact, in 2003 while still living in New Zealand, I got so far as to source it, sow it, and get it growing. I had it timed so that I would be back from my ‘visit’ to Canada in time to harvest it. Well, that was the idea. Needless to say, I never returned to NZ and someone else must have enjoyed the fruits of my labor.
Strikes against me:
So, this spring, once I’d gotten the new garden bed prepped, I sowed 500 grams of my precious Seager Wheeler wheat. Unfortunately, I got the garden developed far too late in the season and consequently the seed was sown much too late. In addition to this, the west coast of British Columbia is not exactly known for its wheat growing season! However, the eternal optimist in me forced me to sow those precious seeds when I did, and at least set the ball in motion.
Bringing in the harvest:
Yesterday, I decided to harvest some of the wheat. It is not at all ready, but the weather has turned sour (well, it is September 23rd and snow is beginning to creep relentlessly down the nearby mountainside towards the river bottom and me) and rain was on the forecast: not something wheat likes in its later stages of development. Rather than risk it all to the rain, I thought I’d run a bit of an experiment: cut some of it down, and see if it would ripen up and dry. I’m hoping that l if I hang the wheat stalks somewhere to dry, the seed heads will mature a bit more and form viable seeds, just as unripened tomatoes will if you uproot them and leave them on the vine.
Since the wheat patch was an experimental patch to begin with, there was not a vast field of wheat to harvest. Instead of a combine harvester the size of a small restaurant, I took my scissors and bucket out to the patch and began to cut. I decided to cut half the patch and let the rest go. Who knows? It might clear up next week. It is now lying (among a whole bunch of other items needing attention) across my kitchen seat bench, drying. Although this year’s experiment may not yield so much as one loaf of bread, I’ve learned a lot, am better prepared for next spring, and feel happily connected to another part of Canadian agricultural history, two provinces away. Mr Wheeler’s success was once used to lure immigrants to Canada; I feel I’ve inherited a precious family jewel and it’s satisfying to replicate it and carry on the tradition.