Growers preserve the past in loaves of bread

Red Fife, Marquis varieties | Organic growers face a variety of challenges in bringing their old variety grain to market

STRATHMORE, Alta. — An early summer hailstorm beat the daylights out of the wheat crop at the Heritage Harvest farm, but the three owners persisted.

Their crops of heritage wheat such as Red Fife and Marquis fetch too high a premium in the organic market to abandon.

Mark Gibreau, Henry Winnicki and Ray Lefebvre of Strathmore have been growing old varieties as certified organic grain since 2005.

Last year, they imported a stone mill from Denmark so they can grind and package their grain on the farm and sell it to farmers’ markets and organic grocers in Calgary.

The on-farm mill and packaging area has Canadian Food Inspection Agency approval.

The venture started with six pounds of seed left over from a heritage wheat project when the Saskatchewan seed bank released seed more than 20 years ago.

There was little interest among farmers to revive the grains, which are parent lines for many of today’s modern varieties.

“Most people were doing it as a hobby on a really small scale,” Gibreau told visitors to the farm.

They planted about 10 acres in 2005 and continued to multiply the seed because there is little available. They grew 200 acres last year and may have about 100 acres this year. They also grow Marquis, a descendent of Red Fife.

Red Fife was introduced to Western Canada in 1870 and spurred on wheat production in Manitoba.

However, it was a late maturing crop and susceptible to lodging and stem rust.

Gibreau admits these varieties are finicky to grow. They are seeded later and special attention must be paid to weed control and staving off rust. The stand is not as even as modern varieties.

“This crop, with its genealogy, seems to work well in this particular location,” he said.

There are other agronomic challenges with an old variety that is also grown under organic conditions.

In 2010 an early frost downgraded the crop and it was sold as feed. This year a July 4 hailstorm knocked out about 60 percent of the crop.

Yields are also lower. For example, Marquis gives them about 38 to 40 bushels per acre.

At one time that would have been considered a successful crop but compared to modern varieties it is not competitive.

The grain is planted with a modified air seeder so it is broadcast rather than placed in rows. This provides a carpet-like plant canopy so the wheat can outcompete the weeds.

In the spring, they use a tine weeder to control unwanted plants during the early growth stages so the wheat can grow ahead of weeds such as thistle and pigweed.

A Noble blade aerates the soil without tumbling it because there are erosion problems in this area east of Calgary.

As well, minimum till practices build fertility.

“We get smarter every year and just carry on,” Gibreau said.

However, they would like to see more research on organic farming because much of what they know has been gained from experience.

For instance, they have found compost tea adds fertility to the soil and helps break down straw after harvest.

They buy the compost and then mixed it on the farm with starch, sugar and water to make the tea. The starch and sugar feed the microbes in the compost.

It sits in a tank for several days and is then sprayed. They also use certified organic bone and blood meal, which was developed for golf courses.

Marketing the grain and flour has never been a problem.

Sold as a whole grain flour, the bread made from Red Fife has a nutty flavour and contains 12.7 to 13.5 percent protein. The bread can be heavier than normal so some bakers add gluten or regular white flour to give the bread extra body.

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