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Winter Wheat in Ontario

L.A. Hunt,

Department of Crop Science, Ontario Agricultural College

Wheat was unknown in North America before the discovery of the new world. The varieties that are now grown in Ontario are thus either introductions from the Old World, or descendants of such introductions. The first introductions of wheat may well have been made by the French, some of whom had settled in the Windsor - Amberstburg area in the early eighteenth century, but the main introductions would undoubtedly have been made by settlers under the British crown both before and after the American War of Independence.

The United Empire Loyalists, who entered into Canada after the American War of Independence, constituted a major group of settlers. They entered Canada in a number of groups. The first new group having lost everything, settled in Eastern Ontario along the shores of the St. Lawrence, and was brought in by the Government; a second group, which entered by Detroit, also brought few effects with them; a third group, which crossed at the Niagara, brought seed grains and other essential items with them - a fact that would have resulted in a close interconnection between the early varieties of wheat of Ontario and those grown further south in the U.S.A.

The groups that entered Canada at the different frontier points varied in ethnic composition - a fact that would have been reflected not only in the varietal composition of the introduced seed for one particular crop, but also in the types of crop that were preferred. Thus, in Eastern Upper Canada more oats were grown because of Scottish settlers. This original preference for one crop over another may well be a factor that continues to affect crop distribution. Indeed, very little wheat is grown in Eastern Ontario at the present time.

Wheat was the most lucrative crop grown in Ontario during the pre-Confederation period, although it was often attacked by diseases (rusts, smut) and insects (Hessian fly, weevil). Both spring and winter wheats were grown at that time, with the winter wheats being concentrated in areas where the winters were a little less severe. Reaman, in "A History of Agriculture in Ontario", noted that there was a large amount of winter wheat exported from central Upper Canada, and pointed out that the traffic in winter wheat from as far north as Caledon, Mono Mills and that area to Port Credit was so great up to 1860 that the Port Credit harbour was more active than the Toronto harbour!

In the post-Confederation period, wheat lands in Western Canada were opened up and returns to wheat growing in Ontario were reduced In consequence the wheat area of Ontario began to decline. This decline was most pronounced in spring wheat, which in general had yielded some 15% less than the winter types. The difference in yield between winter and spring types may have been heightened by the selection in 1881 of a superior variety of winter wheat. The selection was made by a Mr. Robert Dawson of Paris, Ontario It initially consisted of a single plant, selected out of a field of Dawson's wheat, which was carefully propagated and multiplied to become a variety (Dawson's Golden Chaff) which remained the main variety of Ontario for seventy years. The area of spring wheat has continued to decrease through the twentieth century, whereas the area of winter wheat has not decreased to the same degree. Indeed at the present time, there is a tendency for the area of winter wheat to increase. The changes in area are shown in Table 1 in terms of 10 year averages. These long term averages are necessary to even out the yearly ups-and-downs which depend on prices (and wheat area is very dependent on world prices) and weather (winter wheat area can decrease markedly if a wet autumn prevents seeding or a hard winter causes kill). in the current decade, the area of winter wheat increased from 209,000 ha in 1976 to 239,000 ha in 1977, but decreased in 1978 to 136,000 ha (Table 2). This reduction reflected both an extremely wet fall, which resulted in a reduction in seeded area, and an unusually 'tough' winter which had its consequence in the abandonment of some 20 to 25% of the seeded area. The area returned to a more normal size of 210,000 ha in 1979. The general increase in area in the '70's may have reflected the good market price of wheat, and a renewed appreciation of the advantages of wheat in the farming system. Some of these advantages are:

1. The grain can be marketed easily through the Ontario Wheat Producers Marketing Board; while the straw can be marketed to livestock producers in many parts of the Province. 2. Seeding and harvesting operations are carried out at different times than for corn and soybeans, so that peak demands for labour and marketing can be reduced. 3. The grain is harvested at a low moisture percentage so there is little need to spend money on drying the grain before storage. 4. The crop is planted in the early fall so that the land generally does not have to be worked in the early spring when it is often too wet, and when there is a danger of damaging the soil structure. 5. The crop covers the soil in the fall, winter and early spring, and so reduces soil erosion in the run-off water. Against these advantages, however, must be set the disadvantages of finding an appropriate slot in the crop rotation. The average yields of winter wheat, which now are approximately 3.5 tonne/ha, have increased dramatically since 1955 (Table 3). Indeed, the increase in average yield was some 1.8% per year during the decade ending in 1975! The increases in area and yield have resulted in the Ontario crop reaching 0.8 million tonnes in recent years. This quantity exceeds that required for local consumption and in some years up to two thirds of the Ontario crop has been exported. The type of wheat produced - a soft white wheat - is not suitable for making bread, but is a quality item, highly suitable for making cakes and cookies, and in consequence has entered an export market that is quite distinct from that of most of the western Canada grain.

The winter wheat crop is grown predominantly in the milder area of the province with little being grown in eastern and northern Ontario. Even within the milder areas, most winter wheat is grown in the southwestern region, as shown in Fig. 2. The figure also shows that the concentration of the crop in the milder, south em areas has increased with time, a change brought into focus more dramatically when the data are presented as a percentage distribution of the total area of winter wheat (Fig. 3). These changes have resulted from increases in some counties, and decreases in others. The most marked increase has occurred in Essex, where the area harvested in 1976 was over four times that harvested in 1906. By contrast, large decreases in area have occurred in Waterloo, Bruce, Grey and Simcoe counties, where the areas harvested in 1976 were 17%, 13%, 6% and 19% of the areas harvested in 1906, respectively. The reductions in areas in these counties (Fig. 4) have not been uniform, since there was an increase in area both during and immediately following the second World War. The reduction in the period after the second World War was particularly marked in Bruce and Grey countries


A decline in production in a particular area can be caused by many factors. It is interesting to note, however, that the postwar period has been one in which the traditional Dawson's Golden Chaff variety has been replaced first by new varieties from Cornell University in New York and then by a variety (Fredrick) bred at Ottawa (Table 4). Both regions have a different climate than that of Grey and Bruce counties, where the winter snow cover is deep and long lasting, and it could~be that the new varieties are less well adapted to the conditions of Grey and Bruce than the "old faithful" variety. This question of adaptation would relate particularly to the ability to survive the deprivations of the many disease organisms (snow molds) that proliferate beneath a deep and long maintained snow cover.

Decade ending

Main area of wheat harvested (000 Ha)

Winter crop

Main area of wheat harvested (000 Ha)

Spring crop




1905 353 124
1915 295 56
1025 269 77
1935 252 42
1945 268 25
1955 203 8
19656 153 5


Decade ending

Mean yields (tonne/Ha)

Winter crop

Mean yields (tonne/Ha)

Spring crop




1905 1,4 1,1
1915 1,6 1,2
1925 1,6 1,2
1935 1,7 1,3
1945 1,9 1,3
1955 2,1 1,4
1965 2,4 1,6
1975 2,9 2,0


Variety Source Introduced
Dawson's Golden Chaff Ontario 1881
Cornell-595 New York 1946
Genesee New York 1952
Yorkstar New York 1968
Fredrick Ontario 1971

Whilst this aspect has not yet been proven, the scene has been set for scientists to determine the reasons for the more rapid decrease in winter wheat grown in some counties. Should the reason for such a decline be poor adaptation of the new varieties, then varieties will have to be bred that are well adapted to those areas. However, the area of winter wheat will decrease everywhere in Ontario if yield advances do not match those being made with other crops.

Scientists thus must endeavour to maintain and even accelerate the rate of increase in the average yield of wheat in the Province. Present accomplishments in other winter wheat growing areas of the world suggest that further increase in wheat yields in Ontario is quite feasible. If sufficient research effort can be devoted to the crop, therefore, it would seem likely that winter wheat will long continue to play an important part in the farming systems of Ontario.

Copyright 1980

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