From a distance, the golden grain ready for harvest on a farm in Chatham-Kent County looks like any other wheat crop. But looks can be deceiving. Paul Spence is a fifth-generation farmer sowing a new future by turning to heritage wheat varieties from the past. Among the wheat in his fields is Marquis, a strain developed in the early 20th century at the Dominion Experimental Farm in Ottawa. It’s a hybrid with a growing cycle ideal for cold climates and was once considered “the greatest practical triumph of Canadian agriculture.”
Spence is a young and ambitious member of a growing Canadian heritage-wheat movement. He sees it as an opportunity for small farmers to thrive outside the large commodity market. “Big Ag won’t touch heritage wheat because the volumes aren’t appealing,” he explains.
That's a fair assessment. Most wheat farmers in Canada choose strains for production values: high yields and easy harvesting. Often those benefits are tied to irrigation and chemical intervention in the form of pesticides and herbicides. The commodity wheat these large-scale farms grow fills an insatiable consumer appetite for white bread and pastries. As far as taste goes, they are mostly a blank canvas.
Heritage wheat strains, like Einkorn and Emmer, are older — a few are among the first plants ever cultivated — and they don’t meet the agronomic standards used for commodity wheat. The yields are often low, and they can be slow growing. They're tall and susceptible to lodging (bending before harvest), making mechanical harvesting difficult, and the kernels can be tough to mill. But they appeal to farmers who are responding to climate change and looking for qualities like drought resistance, have an interest in seed security and diversity, practise minimal intervention, or are certified organic.
While Big Ag focuses on efficiency in growing and milling, heritage grain growers see their advantages in flavour and nutrient density. Mark Hayhoe, a third-generation flour miller at K2 Milling in Beeton, Ontario, says “Grains that are slow growing, with lower yield, are generally better tasting.”
Increasing the presence of heritage wheat in our fields and markets isn't just a question of what's grown: processing is also important to preserving a wheat’s character, its flavour, and its nutritional value. Historically, heritage grains were ground using stone mills, ideal for breaking down the kernel at a low temperature. (Industrial roller mills are designed for speed and generate heat that can cause wheat to lose both flavour and nutrients.) Hayhoe runs a certified organic hammermill (which, as the name suggests, breaks down kernels with the use of little hammers) — the next best thing— and most of what he processes are Ontario-grown grains. Many of his customers don’t want the bran and germ sifted from the flour; they want 100 per cent of the wheat kernel. Dawn Woodward of Evelyn’s Crackers in Toronto, who bakes exclusively with Ontario whole grains and buys flour from K2 Milling says, “Why would you ask a farmer to grow a heritage wheat, which has a low yield, and then leave a third of it at the mill?” (Disclosure: Dawn and I have worked together on several stories about whole-grain baking.)
Brenan Clarke of Clarke’s Bread in Toronto drives “every week to K2 Milling,” to pick up his flour. He uses a high whole grain mix — there's no white flour in his sourdough bread. That’s unusual given that a lot of bakeries producing similar loaves will only use 30 per cent or less whole grain flour. It would be more economically viable to use a white flour mix, but Clarke says, “I’m not going to make compromises. I’m not interested in any other bread.”
They all point out that developing the market for these heritage varieties is as hard as growing the wheat itself. “For an Ontario farmer to grow it there has to be consumers willing to pay a premium to cover the cost difference between the commodity and heritage crop,” says Hayhoe. Big Ag’s race to the bottom on price has created an economic gap that heritage grain growers need to address.
Clarke and Woodward sell to specialty retail stores and at farmers markets. And knowledge of heritage wheat is spreading. Spelt, and the darling of Canadian bakers, Red Fife, are going mainstream in grocery stores. Red Fife was first grown in 1842 on David Fife’s farm near Peterborough, and it's proving to be a gateway strain for heritage wheat in Canada. Through it consumers are learning that wheat has an identity — it doesn’t just produce a white or brown byproduct that serves as a platform for other flavours. Red Fife’s premium price also signals that there’s something worth paying for in heritage wheat.
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There’s no research on heritage grains in agricultural programs in the province, in part because of Big Ag's lack of interest. Farmers like Paul Spence are initiating tests on Einkorn, Lagoda, and other heritage strains in Michigan, and completing the paperwork to bring seed across the border. Once in the province, the first task — which will take several years — will be to build up enough seed stock to make growing them profitable.
South of the border, where there’s plenty of interest in heritage wheat, they’re further along. “Bakers and farmers are more adventurous in the U.S.,” says Woodward. There are several research facilities exploring the subject, including the Bread Lab at Washington State University. Twice a year Woodward travels there to teach whole-grain baking and keep abreast of developments. Stephen Jones, the lab's director, is “breeding for bakers,” says Woodward. They’re working to create new strains that retain the best qualities of heritage wheat while incorporating some of the commercial elements, like higher yields, to appeal to more farmers. Success on this front could represent a turning point, allowing heritage grains to expand beyond a mostly affluent market.
The Marquis wheat in Paul Spence’s field has a similar story. Red Fife can be difficult to grow and in 1904 it was crossed with Calcutta wheat to create Marquis, a strain that matured earlier, making it less susceptible to frost, had better crop yield, and had superior baking qualities. Spence is a tireless advocate for wheats like it. In October, he hosted a four-day conference on heritage wheat, attracting farmers, bakers, and consumers from across the province. He and Woodward are searching for funds to build a city-based stone mill. They're joining like-minded farmers, millers, and bakers and sowing the seeds of interest. Woodward has seen a rise in consumers “who want to buy from a small, local producer, or are food curious,” she says, “and farmers are approaching me with heritage grains; I don’t have to search for them anymore.”
Deborah Reid is a food writer whose work can be found in Food & Drink, Zoomer, Metro News, and others.
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