Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/December 1908/Canadian Wheat




FOR twenty years the Canadian government has been carrying on experiments in wheat growing under the supervision of the director of the Experimental Farm at Ottawa, Dr. William Saunders.

The United States leads the world in the production of wheat; Canada's growth is only one ninth as large, her export to Great Britain during the years 1901–3 was slightly less than one fifth, though in 1905 it was somewhat more than one half. The year 1905 was very abnormal, however. The United States export to Britain was exceedingly low and was surpassed by those of Russia, Argentina and India. But Canada's growth of wheat, though much less, is greater in proportion to her population, and in view of the many millions to be fed in the United States, it seems natural that before long Canada will export a greater quantity than she. Considering the circumstances, this is as natural as that America's output of coal and trade in iron should be the greatest in the world.

But the greater part of the Canadian wheat area is north of the forty-ninth parallel of latitude and so Dr. Saunders has experimented in growing wheat as far north as possible. The climate in America is colder than at the corresponding latitude in Europe, and so far, at least, we have no records of wheat being grown in Canada as far north as in Russia, but a near approach has been made. Winnipeg's latitude is 50°, and wheat has been grown at Dunvegan on the Peace River, on a parallel of latitude 414 miles north of Winnipeg; at Fort Vermillion, farther down the Peace River, 591 miles by latitude north of Winnipeg, and at Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie, 818 miles north. The latitude of Fort Simpson is approximately sixty-two degrees or within five degrees of the Arctic circle. The length of the summer days compensates for a lower temperature, and the time of ripening of some of the earlier grains is practically the same as in Ottawa. At Fort Simpson 107 days were required as compared with 106 days in Ottawa, some sixteen degrees farther south. Sixteen degrees south of Ottawa is New Orleans. Among the first experiments were comparisons of different varieties of wheat and these experiments are still carried on continually. Some varieties, probably by far the greater number, are cultivated for a season or two only, because they prove to be worthless, but many are sown year after year. These experiments are carried on not only at the central station at Ottawa, but at other stations as well, chiefly in the northwest. Plots one fortieth of an acre in size are found most convenient for the preliminary tests. When varieties are tested for productiveness the condition of ground and cultivation and seeding are made uniform and it has been found that productiveness is in a large degree persistent. Thirty-one varieties of wheat were grown year after year for five years, and of these a select list of the best twelve was made each year. It was found that there were only sixteen varieties that entered this list during the five years, the varieties that were superior in one year being for the most part superior always. Productiveness is, of course, an important consideration, for, other things being equal, an additional bushel per acre means an annual increase of four million dollars with Canada's present wheat acreage, and a correspondingly larger increase as more land is brought under cultivation.

Red Fife is the standard variety of wheat in Canada. It was imported in 1842 by Mr. David Fife, of Otonabee, Ontario, and was part of a cargo brought from Danzig on the Baltic, to Glasgow, and there transshipped to Canada. Dr. Saunders found that during the nearly fifty years that Red Fife had been cultivated there had been no deterioration, the quantity and quality of crop were as good as ever and in the northwest appeared even to improve. But it is rather later in ripening than is desirable where frosts set in early, and one of the great objects aimed at has been to cultivate a variety having the good qualities of Red Fife and at the same time maturing earlier. If also increased productiveness, quality of grain, strength of straw, or ability to resist rust could be attained, so much the better. The value of early ripening is evident when one realizes that two or three weeks' gain in this respect enables a variety to be grown several hundred miles farther north.

One of Dr. Saunders's first measures was to import varieties from all parts of the world where wheat was grown and to test their development under the new conditions. The United States, Japan, Australia, Russia, and even India, contributed many varieties. It was fortunate that the collection was so world wide, for the unexpected happened. It was found that several varieties from India were among the earliest. This proved to be because they were grown in the Himalayas. Thereupon special attention was paid to India, and at a height of 11,000 feet a variety was obtained, the Gehun, that has since been the subject of much experiment. This, along with the Ladoga variety, obtained from the district surrounding the lake of that name, and the Onega variety, from near Archangel, has proved the most promising of the early wheats imported and thus an altitude of eleven thousand feet in a latitude of twenty-five or thirty degrees offsets a northern latitude of sixty or sixty-five degrees at a low level.

New varieties have been obtained by selection and cultivation of natural variations, but a new era was begun on July 19, 1888, when the first experiments were undertaken in the cross-breeding of wheat on the Experimental Farm, and since that time several hundred new sorts have been produced and tested. None of the imported varieties which mature earlier than Red Fife were found to equal it in quality, and in originating the new productions by cross-fertilization Red Fife has in the majority of cases been one of the parents. Ladoga is about a week earlier than Red Fife and is fairly productive, and numerous crosses were made between the two. The most promising of the offspring were carefully cultivated and subjected to rigid inspection, all less desirable sorts being promptly discarded, and the better ones multiplied till seed was obtained for large plots. Of the progeny from this cross, perhaps the most satisfactory and promising are the Preston, a bearded variety, and the Stanley, beardless. These varieties are twin. They originated from one kernel. The heads produced the first season from this kernel were all bearded, but when the seeds from these heads were sown the year following, some plants produced bearded heads and some beardless, and afterwards each variation was cultivated until the type became fixed. The Stanley is from four to six days earlier than Red Fife, is equal to it in milling structure, appearance and strength, but a nine years' comparison shows that on the average it is less productive, its yield being 32 bushels, 2 pounds, against 33 bushels, 7 pounds, in the case of Red Fife. The Preston is as early as the Stanley, is more productive than Red Fife, but is of a slightly lower grade, worth in the London Corn Exchange about three quarters of a cent per bushel less. The value per acre is higher than in the case of Stanley or Red Fife.

Ladoga has also been crossed with White Fife, a variety slightly more productive than Red Fife. The most valuable of the progeny are Huron, which is bearded, is early and is slightly more productive than Red Fife; and Percy, also early, equal to Red Fife in quality, but even less productive than Stanley, yielding as a nine years' average about one hundred pounds less wheat per acre than the standard Red Fife.

Neither Gehun nor Onega is very productive, but, as before stated, they are both early and of their progeny Early Riga ripens eight or nine days earlier than Red Fife. Its productiveness is more than two bushels per acre lower than Red Fife, but its content of gluten—the most important constituent of wheat—is higher. I quote Dr. Saunders's words:

The reports on the Early Riga wheat are most gratifying. The proportion of gluten found in this variety is about twenty per cent, more than in Red Fife and the quality of gluten equal. To find a wheat superior in quality to Red Fife is what one would scarcely expect; but to find that superiority associated with so much earliness—from eight to nine days as an average of five years' trial—is highly satisfactory. The general introduction of such a wheat will probably extend the wheat-growing area in Canada and make it successful at points farther north than is possible with the varieties at present grown. The fact that it falls a little below Red Fife in yield is more than atoned for by its earliness and quality. The outlook in this connection is most encouraging and the results a triumph of the skill of the plant breeder.

The relation between the very important varieties described may be represented as in the accompanying diagram:

The cultivation of the different varieties was carried on by Dr. Saunders and his assistants, but the value of the product was determined not only by the chemist of the experimental farms, but by one of the most competent authorities in England and by Mr. Julicher, of Minneapolis, one of America's best known wheat experts.

Though only a few varieties have been specifically mentioned in this article because they have been most thoroughly investigated, yet many others show great promise, some of them maturing two weeks earlier than Red Fife. These will probably prove valuable not only in northern latitudes, but also in cold and damp soils farther south. A variety that proves promising at one station is tested at the others and if it is satisfactory it is grown in plots larger than the experimental, and the very best grain is selected for further experiments.

Until within the last few years experiments on the milling properties and quality of flour of a new variety of wheat could not readily be carried out because small quantities of grain could not well be ground in ordinary flour mills, and several years were needed in order to grow a sufficient amount for testing, but now the use of a small experimental mill and of the necessary baking apparatus enables every new variety to be tested before it is distributed to farmers throughout the country. For experiments have not been confined to the Experimental Farms. After it has been found that a variety proves satisfactory on the small scale and in the special localities under the supervision of the government, the seed is sent out to all farmers applying for it. The first year 1,149 lots were sent out in this way; in 1906 over 45,000 samples, each of five pounds, carefully selected and done up in strong cotton bags. In order to provide this seed, large areas are set apart, chiefly at the stations in the northwest, whence the grain is sent to Ottawa for distribution. The very earliest sorts are sent out so far only to those places where there is good reason to hope that they will be of particular value.

Dr. Saunders calculates that even without including the far northern territories the Canadian northwest could supply not only sufficient wheat for a local population of thirty millions, but have left over three times as much as the total import of the British Isles. This is on the assumption that one fourth of the arable land is devoted to wheat. If the northern lands are made available by the cultivation of very early varieties of wheat it follows that the possibilities of Canada are immense.

Dr. Saunders's work is therefore of the greatest value to Canada and must have an influence on the rest of the world as well.