The history of Canadian agriculture owes a great debt to the experimental efforts of one man. A Scotch immigrant farmer, David Fife was responsible for introducing a strain of wheat uniquely suited to the harsh and unforgiving Canadian climate. Known as Red Fife, this wheat served as the foundation of Canada’s agricultural prosperity through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Born in Scotland in 1805, David Fife immigrated to the Province of Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario) with his family in 1820. The family settled on a farm on Lot 22, Concession 4 in Otonabee, near present-day Peterborough. When David came of age, he married Jane Beckett and they moved on to their own little plot of land nearby. On this farm the Fife’s dedicated a small section of their fields to growing experimental crops. It was this diligence in search for superior strains of plants that led to the discovery of Red Fife.
How exactly David came into possession of Red Fife seeds is a matter of historical debate, and numerous legends have sprung up over the years. The most likely story involves his friend and neighbour, George Essen, who went back to Scotland to visit in 1841. David asked him to send a sample of any good wheat he saw there so that he might test it out on his experimental farm back in Canada. George, the story goes, nearly forgot about his friend’s commission until one day when he was in Glasgow watching a ship from Danzig unloading it’s cargo of Ukrainian wheat. George Essen purchased a bushel, sent it back to David Fife in Canada, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The wheat that would eventually become known as Red Fife distinguished itself to David primarily because of its extraordinary adaptability to the variable Canadian climatic and environmental conditions. It was the first winter wheat to be successfully grown in Canada, and it became especially well-known as a great milling and baking wheat. What truly set Red Fife apart from other grains in Canada was its resistance to wheat rust, which devastated all previous attempts at a successful winter wheat. By the 1860s, Red Fife was grown across Canada and would remain dominant for the nearly half a century.
Red Fife was particularly influential in the settlement of the Canadian West. It was Red Fife wheat that pushed back the prairie grass and populated the land with farmers, and the railroads and cities that grew up around them. It was the foundation of the West’s economic wealth, and of Canada’s reputation as the “Granary of the Empire.”
David Fife passed away on January 9, 1877 in Peterborough, however his legacy persisted long after. Red Fife remained the dominant strain of wheat in Canada until 1905, when plant breeder Charles Saunders crossed it with Hard Red Calcutta to create Marquis wheat. David Fife’s contributions to Canadian agriculture were recognized by the Senate in 1955, and in 1963 he was inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame.