by Dave Yanko
|The old Wheeler home, near Rosthern.
Some called him the "Wheat King'' of the prairies, others referred to him as "The Wheat Wizard of Rosthern''. No matter what moniker was used, however, there was no denying Seager Wheeler was one of the most extraordinary farmers ever to separate wheat from chaff on the Canadian prairies.
From his Maple Grove Farm 40 minutes northeast of Saskatoon near the Town of Rosthern, Wheeler won a total of five international wheat-growing championships—that's a record that still stands. At a time when many Western Canadian settlers were losing the battle to grow crops in this new and challenging environment, Wheeler was developing effective dryland farming techniques that helped make Canada the breadbasket to the world.
Today, Maple Grove Farm invites visitors to come and learn about some of the innovative agricultural practices that earned Wheeler fame in farming and respect as an early conservationist. The farm is open from mid May to early September. Admission fees are charged.
We visited on a warm and sunny August day noteworthy for an inundation of "cabbage butterflies'' that jerked through the air in erratic flight or settled like snow beside roadways and puddles. The old farmer by the front gate of Maple Grove hadn't seen anything like it before, either.
Wheeler came to Canada from England in 1885, the same year as the North West Rebellion (or Resistance, depending on your view). Just 17 years old when he arrived, he worked in Saskatoon and Moose Jaw for five years before acquiring this land in 1890. Within four years, he was selectively breeding wheat and educating himself on the principles of dry land farming. He married Lily Martin in 1908 and the couple started their family not long thereafter.
Growing wheat on the Saskatchewan prairie was a very different proposition from growing it in England or even in central Canada. The growing season here is significantly shorter and the moisture substantially less. And through all four seasons, the prairie wind was apt to blow stronger and more often than in a country like England.
Wheeler is touted as one of the first people to make use of field shelterbelts to help safeguard topsoil from wind erosion. He planted wheat in rows to further protect the soil and he seeded new crops directly into last year's stubble. The overall effect was to conserve moisture and nutrients in the soil, and to keep the soil "rooted'' in place.
|A few animals for the kids.
Information contained at a kiosk near the Maple Grove orchard says Wheeler observed the problems experienced by neighbours who tilled their fields in this breezy environment.
"On many farms, Russian thistle filled the fence lines and soil collected until fences virtually disappeared.''
What's clear from a tour of the farm is that Wheeler was, in addition to being a great wheat breeder and grower, a master at balancing the ecology of his land. It is said that he did not see any fruit-bearing trees in Saskatchewan until he grew and brought his own into production—the Maple Grove orchard, once the largest on the prairies, now is being restored and managed by volunteers.
Rather than battle birds for the precious fruit grown in his orchard, however, Wheeler grew lowbush and highbush cranberry, buffalo berry and chokecherry bushes to divert their attention. The berry trees provided shelter as well as food for birds and small mammals.
Wheeler's colourful flower garden was recreated on site under the direction of the University of Saskatchewan using the recollections of his daughters Beth and Isobelle.
The girls were quite young when their father's garden was in its prime. But they remembered many of the perennials he favoured and this information was used by volunteers from Rosthern, who completed the English flower garden in 1995. Today the garden includes dahlias, gladiolas, lily of the valley, roses, peonies, delphiniums, sweet William, babies breath and daisies. It's a pleasant place to stop and relax during a tour of the grounds.
|A volunteer attends to the flower garden.
Drinks and fresh baking and other goodies are available at the small restaurant in the visitors centre and English high tea is served here several times over the course of the summer—dates and times are posted on the farm's website below. Spring and summer also bring demonstrations of heritage machinery and farming practices, as well as special celebrations for Mother's Day, Father's Day and Canada Day. The visitor centre features interpretive displays that include a video on the extraordinary life of Seager Wheeler, an innovator, ecologist and The Wheat Wizard of Rosthern.
To learn more about the Wheat Wizard and Maple Grove Farm, visit the Seager Wheeler Farm website and check out the Government of Canada website on Wheeler.
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