Here's an important addition to the drive toward a locally grown diet — durum wheat.
Until now, durum wheat, which is used for making pasta, could not be grown in Ontario. Conditions here were too wet and hot. Instead, most of the durum wheat processed into pasta in Ontario was shipped mostly by train from western Canada.
However, for the past six years, Palmerston-based C&M Seeds has been working with area farmers and millers to field test a durum wheat variety suitable for Ontario. And now, it looks like it's ready for commercial production. Recently, the company invited more than 30 area farmers and agronomists to check out the new variety, called Hallmark, at the company headquarters.
Hallmark's development underlines why we shouldn't get too parochial in our view of local food. Interestingly, this new "local" variety was developed in Germany.
It's not unusual for seed companies to maintain test plots and support plant breeders in many corners of the world, scoping out potential new varieties and traits. In C&M's case, its breeder in Germany crossed the right varieties to give the company a durum wheat that could tolerate Ontario's unique wheat-growing environment.
Hallmark will get a good workout. Ontario is experiencing one of its driest summers in recent memory, which will put any new variety through a rigorous test. But that's why seed companies such as C&M conduct field tests and challenge new varieties in their natural environment, outside the relatively safe confines of a growth chamber or laboratory. If the varieties can't handle an assortment of natural weather stresses — which just seem to be getting more extreme all the time — they won't be much good to farmers, who need some assurance of a variety's performance before they plant it.
Hallmark's development also exemplifies the kind of value chain alliance that the agri-food sector leaders have been advocating. Hallmark will eventually end up in the marketplace because C&M is teaming up with milling company Howson and Howson Flour Mill of Blyth, to process the durum wheat (it's milled into semolina, which is what most pasta is made from). They needed each other to bring the variety to fruition, to where farmers and consumers could get access to it.
They're still not quite there. They need more farmers to give it a try and start believing in it, which is what the durum demonstration event was all about. But Rob McLaughlin, district sales manager for C&M, believes within a few years durum wheat could match the acreage of Ontario's other spring grown wheat, called hard red spring wheat commonly used for bread production.
He suspects Hallmark will be popular for a couple of reasons. First, it will likely sell for a premium, perhaps up to $50 a tonne more than other wheat varieties. And he's counting on big interest from the local food movement, especially those concerned about the environmental consequences of long-distance transportation. Wheat travels well, so quality isn't sacrificed when it's brought in from western Canada (in fact, the prairies have some of the world's best durum) but the appreciably shorter transportation factor is enormous for those who prefer their food to take a local route from farm to fork.
It's not surprising C&M is taking a lead in developing durum wheat for Ontario. Since its inception in 1978, it's brought new types of wheat popular elsewhere in the world to Ontario. In fact, when the company started, only soft winter wheat was grown here. But with a commitment to research and development, C&M ushered in other types to the point where now, with a suitable variety of durum wheat waiting in the wings, Ontario farmers will grow every possible type of wheat available. That means Ontario has quickly become the most diverse wheat growing region in the world.
And that makes Ontario farmers even more unique among the world's wheat producers.