Red Fife wheat and keeping our seedy heritage alive

This is my newest, favourist thing.  Bread made entirely with Red Fife wheat flour.  This loaf has loads of flavour; it is nutty and rich, with a texture that is dense and chewy.  The perfect kind of bread for cold, late season days. 

Red Fife wheat was named after David  Fife, my great, great, great grandfather (on my father’s mother’s side) who came to Canada from Scotland in 1820. 

David Fife's cabin circa 1820s, Otonabee Township, Peterborough County

Early records indicate a friend sent him seed from Glasgow that he had found on a ship originating from Danzig.  It turned out this was an ideal strain of wheat for the unpredictable and unforgiving Canadian climate.  It was the first wheat that was grown successfully and reliably on the prairies and kick-started the industry in that tough, colonial century.  It is, therefore, a heritage wheat, the parent of all varieties grown in Canada today.

Lang Mill; where Red Fife wheat was ground into flour from the 1840s onward

This wheat was, for the most part, lost by the end of the 19th century when other, earlier to harvest and therefore more industry friendly, strains became favoured.  But Red Fife remained a parent to many of these hybrids.  Throughout most of the 20th century, this oldest strain of ‘heritage’ wheat was only being kept alive in seed banks and by small scale seed savers.   It was all but unknown to Canadians until the beginning of this century when Sharon Rempel in Victoria, B.C. and a group of passionate slow food activists, chefs, seed savers and others sought out some of these old world grains to grow again. 

When Sharon Rempel planted her seeds she had a vision: someday Red Fife would be grown again commercially. To a considerable degree, that image has materialized. Red Fife is produced by small-scale farmers—mostly, if not exclusively, organic—who grow it outside the Wheat Board’s tracking system. The movement originated in the West and from there gradually spread across the country. In 2007, approximately five hundred tons of Red Fife was harvested, from as far west as the Gulf Islands in British Columbia to eastern Nova Scotia. Interestingly, it didn’t return to County Road 4 until 2005 when four women, all of whom live and farm on David Fife Line, decided to resurrect this forgotten chapter in their local history.

“We realized we lived on David Fife Line and very few people had any sense of what that meant,” commented Helen Knibb, a member of the Fife Line Sisterhood, as they christened themselves. “We felt compelled to acknowledge our agricultural history; it’s part of our heritage.”

They contacted Saskatchewan farmer Marc Loiselle (http://loiselle.ma.googlepages.com), who became interested in Red Fife in 2001, and has made it his mission to provide seeds for growers across the country. Virtually all the Red Fife seed planted in Ontario comes from him, although local farmers are starting to produce their own. The Sisterhood planted one-and-a-quarter acres their first year, and, with the help of local farmer Peter Leahy, who was growing a small amount himself, produced a second crop, but they didn’t have the infrastructure to grow the grain on a much larger scale and bowed out of the business. Leahy’s interest was whetted and he has gradually increased the quantity he grows at Merrylynd, his certified organic family farm just outside Peterborough, Ontario. Last year he planted fifty acres, a relatively large quantity in the Red Fife world.

Like others I spoke with, Leahy says he doesn’t have enough to keep up with the demand. “People from Jamie Kennedy’s called me recently,” he told me in early April, “but I couldn’t give them any flour. I need to keep some for seed.” At least two other farmers are growing Red Fife in Ontario—Patricia Hastings at the Centre for Integrated Pest Management (CIPM) in Madoc and Sean McGivern of Saugeen Specialty Grains in the Owen Sound area.

Today, you can buy Red Fife flour in bulk at select locations like the Wheat Berry on Main Street in Ottawa, or go direct to Patricia Hastings’ farm in Madoc.

8 thoughts on “Red Fife wheat and keeping our seedy heritage alive”

    1. Thanks for the comment Natalie. Yeah, I thought it was cool too! I made that bread and have made several more. I have heard that some commercial bakeries are starting to make heritage wheat bread (Red Fife among them) and they can be found in major grocery stores but I haven’t yet run into them. But, honestly, this my first foray into breadmaking has shown that it is, in fact, easy and so rewarding. My next try will include seeds and perhaps some spice to make it even more interesting.

  1. I was contacted in 2009 by Sharon Rempel who wanted me to grow some Red Fife for her. She provided me with her original seed that she had left. Since them I have been providing many farms and customers with seed and milling grain. This past year I grew 530 acres and it has been doing very well against the newer varieties. I f any one is looking for seed or grain for milling can contact me.

    1. Wow Bernie. That is so wonderful. I’m not at all surprised that Red Fife is holding its own against the newer varieties of wheat. Would you say that it is becoming popular among small scale farmers? I sure hope so. It has such a wholesome dark and nutty flavour and makes a loaf that is dense and chewy. So flavourful and so good for you, so far away from the tasteless cardboard you buy at the supermarket.

      1. I have been quite amazed as to the interest of the Red Fife. Not only small farms and gardeners, but the consumer who is looking for heritage grains. It has been out performing a more modern variety that I have been growing organically side by side. I have sold seed to many interested farms all over Canada but in many places from the West coast to the East coast in the USA. I have even had interest from a few countries overseas.

      2. Wow, Bernie, that’s incredible. But I’m not terribly surprised because it has such a full, nutty and rich flavour. And it is good for us! What is your farm and where do you grow it? Does it perform well for you? Do you bake with it too?

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