This Week in History


C.E. Saunders and the Miracle of Marquis

For the Week of Monday January 30, 2006

On February 2, 1867, Sir Charles Edward Saunders was born in London, Ontario. Son of William Saunders, a prominent pharmacist and agriculturalist, Charles followed his father’s interest in science, and revolutionized Canadian wheat farming.

Charles Edward Saunders
© id #20232
Educated at the University of Toronto and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Charles worked as a chemistry professor and a music teacher before taking a job at the Central Experimental Farm (CEF) in Ottawa, in 1903. Created in 1886 as a result of the federal Act Respecting Experimental Stations, the CEF was largely the brainchild of Charles’s father and the Minister of Agriculture Sir John Carling. Its purpose was to advance farming techniques through extensive experimentation and to collaborate with the four other regional Research Stations created by the Act to improve Canada’s position as an exporter of farm produce.

One of the challenges faced by the Experimental Farms Branch was to reduce the growing time for wheat in the West, where that crop often became subject to early frost and a portion of its yield was lost. The answer came in the form of Marquis Wheat, which was originally created by Charles' brother, A.P. Saunders, when he crossed Red Fife and Hard Red Calcutta wheat in 1892. Charles Saunders perfected the strain through a meticulous breeding process that lasted a number of years and, in 1907, he distributed the first seeds to Indian Head, Saskatchewan for further testing. The result was a huge success. Not only could Marquis wheat produce higher quality bread and greater yields per acre, it also had a growing season between a week and 10 days shorter than Red Fife, which meant that frost was less likely to affect farmers’ livelihoods. In addition, Marquis was resistant to rust, a fungus that killed many of the crops preceding it. By 1920, it accounted for 90 percent of the wheat grown in Western Canada and produced millions of dollars of Canadian export revenue. 

CEF Promotional Image, 1890
© Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Today, the Central Experimental Farm plays less of a role in furthering Canadian agriculture than it did in the early 20th century. Despite the Farm’s reduced responsibility, the impact of Marquis wheat on the Canadian economy cannot be overestimated. It fulfilled Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s desire for a settled Canadian West and cemented Canada’s status as a great agricultural exporter. For these reasons, Sir Charles Edward Saunders, the Central Experimental Farm and the Experimental Farms Branch have all been designated to be of national historic significance.

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