We are pleased to announce the first good news about the acre of Minnesota wheat leased to some lucky folks (after the stormy winter, floods, and tariffs that affected so many farmers). The growers will be keeping a close eye on the crop as it progresses from the little shoots just now turning the prairie into a pale green sea, right up to the day it is sent off to the grinding mill in western New York that has been operating for more than 150 years and still uses a waterwheel. The grinding takes place in September.
Wheat is a grass–genus triticum aestivum–and, next to rice, it is the most widely used grain in the world. It comes in many varieties, and botanists who are an earnest group must have had a field day describing its qualities–bearded, beardless, bald, hard, and soft. You may eat it everyday “straight” or in many disguises. As a child, you were perhaps warned to “Eat your wheaties”! Remember school assemblies when we all blithely sang “America The Beautiful”:
For amber waves of grain
O, beautiful, for spacious skies
For purple mountains majesty
Above the fruited plain
Without having any notion of what a fruited plain might be and certain that we had never seen a purple mountain.
Wheat has been a part of all our diets since we graduated to solid food. In the history of our species, the importance of wheat goes back to the first “bread” about 12,000 years ago. Not that we would recognize it as such–wheat kernels crushed and mixed with water to form dough, and baked on hot stones. The Egyptians improved the art by observing that dough when allowed to ferment forms gasses and “rises” when baked. Thus, was born the leavened loaf. The clever Egyptians also invented baking ovens and were so pleased with their invention they painted pictures of ovens on the walls of tombs!
Fast forward to 1640 when the first American bakery appeared: In those days a baker or miller had no need to trumpet that his flour was stone ground because all flour was stone ground. It wasn’t until the 1800s that other milling techniques were developed, which, unfortunately, led us down the devil’s path to white flour so stripped of nutrients in the milling process that it must be artificially enriched!
The early European immigrants who converted the Minnesota prairie into one of the most fertile wheat-growing areas of the world would have been appalled at the transformation of their nutritious spring wheat. They had planted a hardy durum that they could sow in the early spring after the worst of winter had passed.
Although Minnesota farmers prospered, the advent of the civil war in 1861 brought on an agricultural revolution. Most able young men went to war, and there was not enough labor to plant and harvest thousands of acres of wheat and corn.
Manpower gave way to horsepower. Necessity, as ever, became the mother of invention. Horse-drawn reapers and threshers (invented in the 1840s) were adapted in such a way that it was possible to farm more land with fewer people. Huge crops could be grown, and farming became more than just raising food for oneself or the local market. Instead, railroads transported crops clear across the continent. Collateral businesses sprang up–grain elevators, machinery supply outlets, banks, and entire towns.
In the 1880s, wheat was Minnesota’s leading crop. The farms were immense, stretching far beyond where the eye could see. Row upon row of wagons and horse-drawn equipment ringed the fields at harvest time to bring in millions of bushels of wheat. Enterprising businessmen reasoned that it would make sense to develop wheat products right on the spot. Thus, was born the giant Minnesota cereal companies so familiar to us at breakfast each morning.