June 2018 - Lougheed House

Marquis wheat and Canada’s “heroic” 19th century ag scientist William Saunders

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by Adam Sarjeant, Lougheed House Admissions Assistant

It’s summer, and so Lougheed House celebrates all things green and leafy in our Gardens and in our just-closed “Wild in the West” exhibition of botanical illustrations by the Botanical Artists’ Guild of Southern Alberta. From May 9 to June 10, we joined with museums and galleries in 25 countries on six continents to celebrate Botanical Art Worldwide, an international event promoting botanical illustrators creating works based on indigenous plant species.

These days, with all our emphasis on our transitioning modern economy, it can be easy to forget that Alberta was once entirely plant dependent. And not just plant dependent; for most of our history as a province, Alberta was reliant on a single strain of wheat to fuel our entire agricultural economy! This month, we’re giving a great big “Thank you” to Marquis Wheat, and the magnificent Saunders family who created it!

  1. William Saunders (1836-1914)

William Saunders (druggist, entomologist, biologist, agriculturalist, geneticist, etc., etc.) was a living, breathing study in the grand scientific shift taking place at the turn of the 20th century. Saunders’s education was a product of 19th century “heroic” science: sporadic efforts being made primarily by independent (sometimes even travelling) scientists, publishing their work in journals with little or no oversight or quality control. Some of these scientists were hobbyists; others, like Saunders, were a product of the new scientific economy, making their modest income through recent innovations in medicine, engineering, chemistry, or other fields of applied science.

Saunders began his career as a Druggist (what we today would call a Pharmacist), though he most likely would have referred to himself as a specialist in “Materia Medica,” or the study of the medical properties of plants. By the standards of the early 20th century, when scientists were beginning to organize into institutions, develop systems of peer review, and organize their work into scientific canons, “Materia Medica” was increasingly seen as a pseudo-science, based more often on obscure, centuries-old texts and folklore than in verifiable experimental data. However, this increasingly outdated scientific system had furnished Saunders with a unique skill-set which bridged medicine and agriculture. As a result of his belief that medicine and the rearing of plants were inextricable studies, Saunders was also an early adopter of experimental techniques for the improvement of crops. At first, this lead him to explore entomology, as a means of understanding the relationship between pest insects and plant disease. But his interest soon began to shift to fruit plant hybridization, and in 1869 he purchased a farm east of London, Ontario, with which to establish one of the first experimental farms for plant breeding in Canada.[1]

Saunders may have begun his career as a relic of the old ways of doing things, but this new interest in experimental farming would gradually re-shape his work into an example of what the new, empirical scientific process could do – but not without a dash of old-fashioned know-how.

  1. The Dominion Experimental Farms System, and the Creation of Marquis Wheat

Despite being a successful agricultural nation, Canada had faced a significant problem with its wheat production for centuries: chiefly, that the varieties of wheat grown in Europe and imported to North America were not acclimatized to our unique Canadian climate. Common Canadian varietals at the time often did not ripen early enough to avoid early frosts which could devastate grain harvests. The Liberal-Conservative government (under Sir John A. MacDonald) recognized the successes of continental efforts in Experimental Agriculture, and in 1886 William Saunders was named Director of the Dominion Experimental Farms System, owing in no small part to his acquaintance with Commissioner of Agriculture John Carling.[2]

Wheat field photo courtesy Pixabay

Saunders’ first act as Director was a gruelling tour of Western Canada’s farms by coach, during which he examined and collected wheat varietals, consulted with farmers, and examined climatological factors in growth. It was during this time that he became familiar with Halychanka wheat, also known as Galician or Red Fife. Of the grain varietals currently in use in Western Canada, only Halychanka (originally from Eastern Germany and Ukraine) and Ladoga (from Russia) displayed an early enough ripening season to match the Canadian climate. To broaden the scope of his experiments, Saunders also imported numerous varieties from across Europe. Tragically, in the experimental plantings which followed, not a single varietal showed the necessary qualities for Canadian cultivation – except for Halychanka. If a Canadian-friendly grain was ever to be bred, it would have to be derived from this unusual Eastern European strain.[3]

Despite having no formal academic background, it was up to William Saunders and two of his sons, A.P. and Charles Saunders, to import modern plant husbanding techniques based on early genetic theory, in order to establish a system for evaluating grain which very closely resembled modern empirical methodology. However, when supply issues during the winter of 1903-4 temporarily deprived Saunders of a properly stocked laboratory, he reverted to his pre-modern roots, and created a way of gauging quality which, though not particularly reproducible, was surprisingly effective. Saunders would place several grains of wheat in his mouth and chew them to create a “dough ball.” From this he could loosely evaluate the grain’s gluten elasticity, giving him a rough estimate of its milling and baking qualities. Later, when the lab was properly established, it turned out that Saunders’ estimates based on chewing were virtually identical to the lab evaluations.[4]

Over numerous generations, and possibly through the addition of Ladoga and Hard Red Calcutta (and Indian hybrid), The Experimental Farms System not only achieved an earlier-ripening strain, but managed (with no small amount of luck) to fortify it with an unusually high average yield, and with stalks which rarely laid flat (a useful trait for harvesting). In 1912, the new variety, dubbed “Markham” (changed to Marquis by 1906) was shipped to a small number of farms across Canada and the Northern United States.[5] [6] The resultant increase in yield from these seeds was immediately obvious, and farmers quickly diverted production to the new strain.

By 1918, Marquis wheat occupied over 80 per cent of the total wheat acreage of Canada and the Northern United States. The increase in total production resulting from the new strain fundamentally changed Canada’s economy: formerly a high-quality but low-yield producer, in a handful of years Canada became the highest per capita wheat producer in the world. This new economic status quo reverberated throughout the political world. The surplus wheat significantly influenced supply during the First World War, providing a distinct advantage to Canada’s allies. Canadian farmers and farmer’s unions became massively influential, shifting the balance of democratic power – particularly in Alberta, where in 1921 the United Farmer’s Association achieved a surprise majority in the provincial legislature, setting the stage for the economically pro-socialist but culturally conservative political landscape which would last until the 1967 Conservative coup.[7]

[1] Ian M. Stewart, “SAUNDERS, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 3, 2018, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/saunders_william_14E.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Stephan Symko, “From a Single Seed – Tracing the Marquis Wheat Success Story in Canada to Its Roots in Ukraine (1 of 11),” Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), December 11, 2015, accessed June 08, 2018, http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/news/scientific-achievements-in-agriculture/from-a-single-seed-tracing-the-marquis-wheat-success-story-in-canada-to-its-roots-in-ukraine-1of11/?id=1181224838769.

[4] Ibid.

[5] George Fedak, “Marquis Wheat,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, April 23, 2013, , accessed June 08, 2018, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/marquis-wheat/.

[6] Symko, ibid.

[7] Fedak, ibid.

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