Canadian Cultivation of Marquis Wheat Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Agricultural scientists’ development of Marquis wheat benefited Canadian farmers and enhanced the nation’s economy by providing early-ripening, high-yielding, high-quality grain compatible with the climate in the western provinces. The Marquis strain soon replaced most spring wheat varieties, extended acreage cultivated, increased exports, and created surpluses.

Summary of Event

During the late nineteenth century, pharmacist William Saunders collected plant samples to propagate new varieties and taught his children horticultural techniques on their family’s farm in London, Ontario. In 1886, a parliamentary commission appointed Saunders director of the five original Dominion Experimental Farms, Dominion Experimental Farms which were headquartered in Ottawa. He assisted in the development of agricultural investigations throughout Canada, improving crop types to increase agricultural production, quality, and profits. Saunders’s work also provided the foundation for his sons’ work in agriculture. Wheat, hybridization Marquis wheat Agriculture;Marquis wheat [kw]Canadian Cultivation of Marquis Wheat (1904) [kw]Cultivation of Marquis Wheat, Canadian (1904) [kw]Marquis Wheat, Canadian Cultivation of (1904) [kw]Wheat, Canadian Cultivation of Marquis (1904) Wheat, hybridization Marquis wheat Agriculture;Marquis wheat [g]Canada;1904: Canadian Cultivation of Marquis Wheat[00870] [c]Agriculture;1904: Canadian Cultivation of Marquis Wheat[00870] [c]Science and technology;1904: Canadian Cultivation of Marquis Wheat[00870] [c]Trade and commerce;1904: Canadian Cultivation of Marquis Wheat[00870] Saunders, Sir Charles Edward Saunders, William Saunders, Arthur Percy MacKay, Angus

Farmers in western provinces needed wheat that ripened prior to frosts, and so Saunders traveled to evaluate wheat varieties that thrived in cold and high-altitude regions. He tested Ladoga wheat imported from Russia, which matured quickly but lacked characteristics desired for baking. Saunders noted that Red Fife wheat, a variety derived from Ukrainian sources, possessed acceptable milling and baking qualities but was slower to ripen. While brothers Charles Edward Saunders and Arthur Percy Saunders completed chemistry doctorates at The Johns Hopkins University, they assisted their father during vacations to develop spring-wheat hybrids that exhibited the traits farmers demanded. The Saunders family started crossing samples in July, 1888, and they devoted two decades to improving spring wheat for cultivation in northwestern Canada, where cold temperatures, wind, and drought often damaged existing wheat varieties. They wanted plants that could endure weather extremes and short summers.

The Saunderses tested crosses between Red Fife and several wheat varieties that matured early enough to be planted and harvested prior to deadly frosts but were inferior for processing. Their efforts included selecting and crossing samples of Red Fife and an Indian import, Hard Red Calcutta, and they produced several generations in order to create adequate specimens. By 1892, Percy Saunders had developed seed for a cross between Red Fife and Hard Red Calcutta called Markham at the experimental farm at Agassiz in British Columbia, and this cross provided the genetic foundation for Marquis wheat.

In the early twentieth century, the need for a better wheat strain intensified as railroads extended throughout western Canada and farmers, who were often immigrants recruited to move to Canada, settled those prairie provinces. The railroad reached the Pacific Ocean, which opened up possibilities for exporting grain beyond local markets, and so farmers wanted to be able to harvest larger yields. Wheat seed imported from Europe, the United States, and eastern Canada proved unsuitable because it required a longer time to germinate and mature. Meanwhile, demand for wheat flour increased as populations grew and milling technology improved.

Hired by his father as a cereal expert in 1903, Charles Saunders focused on breeding experiments with Markham wheat at the Central Experimental Station in Ottawa. He examined wheat descended from his brother’s crosses: The best wheat for breeding, he found, had specific qualities, including short stalks and light color. He rejected types, jotting comments in notebooks for each generation he observed. During August, 1903, Charles Saunders picked a Markham sample—which had ripened several days earlier than other wheat and had the desired texture and quality for milling and baking—and he saved its seeds.

In 1904, Saunders planted the Markham seeds, and he continued to test the wheat produced from that sample and succeeding generations in his laboratory during the following years. He chewed kernels to evaluate gluten quality and also milled grain into flour to bake bread. Saunders kept isolating particular specimens: those that ripened early, produced strong elastic dough that absorbed sufficient water, and baked well. By 1906, he had identified two exceptionally promising wheat specimens, which he called Marquis A and B. For a time he kept evaluating samples, but eventually he concentrated all his investigations on Marquis B.

During 1907, Saunders ground his chosen variety and baked it, proving that Marquis produced larger and more loaves than were produced from bread baked from equal amounts of other wheat varieties’ flour. Convinced his wheat strain consistently matured early and demonstrated expected quality, Saunders noted that it also outproduced Red Fife crops by as much as 40 percent.

Saunders gave some seeds to Angus MacKay, the director of the experimental farm at Indian Head, and MacKay tested them in his fields in Saskatchewan. Saunders also distributed seeds to experimental farms in the eastern provinces. Eastern researchers reported minimal differences between the Marquis and other varieties, but MacKay stated that Marquis had the highest yields in tests and had ripened first. After more trials, MacKay agreed that Saunders’s hybrid-wheat seed was ready for distribution. Saunders named the new variety Marquis and began promoting it to agriculturists.

By 1909, Canadian farmers, particularly in western prairie provinces, had gained access to Marquis wheat seed. Their satisfaction with its yields resulted in the spread of that strain to the east and south, and soon most wheat growers were planting Saunders’s hybrid. Marquis wheat soon replaced Red Fife in many fields, especially in Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, because it required five to ten fewer days to grow and could be harvested prior to autumn frosts, which threatened varieties that required longer growing periods. Most millers praised Marquis wheat’s processing qualities. Agricultural guides included advice for farmers growing it, and bread manufacturers and mills promoted it in booklets.

The Canadian government supported Marquis wheat, and it became Canada’s standard wheat strain. In 1912, Parliament passed the Canada Grain Act, Canada Grain Act (1912) which regulated wheat trading, established a board of grain commissioners, and graded standards to assess quality and fair market pricing. Marquis wheat consistently represented the greatest percentage of wheat and received the highest grade. Many American agriculturists chose Marquis over other wheat varieties, and international exports of Marquis boosted Canada’s economy.

Marquis wheat represented 80 percent of Canadian wheat produced in 1915 and 90 percent in 1920. During 1917, cultivation of Marquis wheat earned a total of $340 million in five Canadian provinces and $170 million in the United States. In 1918, farmers planted twenty million acres of Marquis wheat in North America. For a time, the number of acres planted with Marquis wheat increased every year. After World War II, however, Marquis’s vulnerability to stem rust led to its replacement by Marquis derivatives, and each year farmers planted several hundred million acres of Marquis descendants.


Marquis wheat dominated grain crops cultivated in western Canada during the early twentieth century. It generated billions of dollars during the first half of the twentieth century, because it was specifically bred to be compatible with prairie conditions. Marquis helped Canada become an international agricultural power that produced record-setting yields per acre. Furthermore, Marquis’s yields proved essential to agricultural economic growth and vitality in North America, and its cultivation generated more income than all other crops and livestock sold in Canada.

Marquis wheat enabled Canadian wheat farmers to plant two hundred miles farther north, which invigorated western Canada’s economy. Farmers won awards at agricultural fairs in Canada and the United States for Marquis wheat, and judges designated Marquis wheat samples as the most outstanding wheat in the world. Marquis wheat became the source of breeding stock for most modern wheat grown for bread both in Canada and around the world, and scientists used Marquis genes to create hardier strains, such as Marquillo, that could withstand diseases.

The use of Marquis wheat had impacts on many communities in Canada and abroad. Increased yields resulted in the building of more storage elevators, mills, train cars, and ships. Marquis wheat’s growing abilities lured immigrants to western Canada, more agriculture-related jobs became available in rural areas, and Canadian governments were able to use taxes from the sale of Marquis wheat to fund education. Marquis’s high yields helped Canada produce a surplus of wheat, which provided relief to Canada’s European allies during food crises in both World War I and World War II. Wheat, hybridization Marquis wheat Agriculture;Marquis wheat

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonjean, Alain P., and William J. Angus, eds. The World Wheat Book: A History of Wheat Breeding. London: Intercept, 2001. Comprehensive essay collection documenting regional wheats, including a chapter featuring Canadian varieties. Discusses twentieth century agricultural scientists’ genetically based strategies to devise improved strains.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buller, A. H. Reginald. Essays on Wheat, Including the Discovery and Introduction of Marquis Wheat, the Early History of Wheat-Growing in Manitoba, Wheat in Western Canada, the Origin of Red Bobs and Kitchener, and the Wild Wheat of Palestine. New York: Macmillan, 1919. Provides statistics and comprehensive information examining the development of Marquis wheat and varieties developed from that strain. Illustrations show experimental plots and comparisons of Marquis wheat stalks and bread with other varieties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, Byrd C., Sanjaya Rajaram, and H. Gómez Macpherson, eds. Bread Wheat: Improvement and Production. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2002. Volume in the FAO Plant Production and Protection Series that includes articles by agricultural researchers explaining strategies for breeding stronger wheat, especially for protection against diseases and insects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morrison, J. W. “Marquis Wheat: A Triumph of Scientific Endeavour.” Agricultural History 34, no. 4 (October, 1960): 182-188. Emphasizes how Charles Saunders carefully applied scientific plant breeding techniques to develop Marquis wheat instead of randomly discovering that strain (as many accounts depict). Includes reproductions of Saunders’s notebook entries evaluating test subjects and a bread trial record sheet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pomeroy, Elsie M. William Saunders and His Five Sons: The Story of the Marquis Wheat Family. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1956. Excellent biographical account of how the Saunders family developed their plant breeding methods. Contains excerpts from their writings and personal photographs.

Haber Develops Process for Extracting Nitrogen from the Air

Famine Strikes Russia

Agricultural Marketing Act

Canada Enacts Depression-Era Relief Legislation

Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union

Categories: History