Facts About Wheat Farming

Written by susan bolich
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Facts About Wheat Farming
(Top photo courtesy Bryan Wittal, combine/tractor photo courtesy of the author, horse harvest photo courtesy of the Sherman County Historical Society, Oregon)

Wheat has been and remains one of the most important crops in the world. Golden wheat ripening in the sun is an iconic image of the Midwest, America's breadbasket. Millions of acres around the world are devoted to wheat production, yet few realise humanity's long connection to this humble grass.

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The Beginning of Wheat Farming

Wild emmer wheat was first cultivated by tribes of hunter-gatherers in the Fertile Crescent (encompassing parts of modern-day Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, northern Iraq and northern Iran) around 8500 B.C. Domestication of wheat and other wild grasses helped give the Fertile Crescent cultures a leg up on their neighbours as wandering tribes settled down and became food producers. This in turn led to excess food production that encouraged the rise of specialised trades and technology that spread east and west from this "cradle of civilisation." Villages and cities grew up in proximity to the precious wheat fields, and grain was traded across the ancient world.

Domestication of Wheat

Natural selection and trial-and-error by early man led to varieties of wheat that were easy to grow, harvest and thresh. Removal of the grain from the head is an important part of the process of turning wheat into flour and then into bread and other staple products, yet the head must remain intact long enough for gatherers to harvest it. Early humans chose those plants that were easiest to gather and yielded the most seeds, replanting from the same stock and thereby perpetuating the qualities they most prized. Later, as humans gained understanding of breeding for certain traits, they were able to consciously try to improve and cross various strains of wheat for hardiness and yield. Because of this long tinkering, modern wheat, unlike the original wild emmer wheat, is seldom able to propagate itself naturally because the grain does not part easily from the head as wild grass seeds do.

Early Methods of Wheat Farming

Cultivation of wheat steadily spread across the ancient world, reaching Britain by around 5000 B.C. and China a thousand years later. Wheat was sowed by hand on fertile soil for thousands of years before the invention of the seed drill in China around the second century B.C. The seed drill drives seeds into the soil rather than letting them lie on top of the ground, where they are at the mercy of birds and weather. However, farmers still sowed wheat in the "broadcast" manner of throwing seed from a hand-held basket into the 20th century. Tilling the soil with animal-drawn ploughs began about 3,000 years ago, but it was not until the 19th century that the invention of the McCormick reaper in the United States began the age of mechanised harvesting.

Labor Intensive

Planting, harvesting and threshing wheat by hand is labour-intensive, requiring many hours of work for each bushel harvested. Early tools to improve the process included the single- and multitube seed drill, the plough and the scythe. The cradle-scythe allowed a single man to cut three times the ripe wheat a man with the old-fashioned sickle scythe could manage in a day, but then the wheat needed to be bundled up and tied in shocks to dry, and the shocks transported to a threshing floor, where the grain was beaten from the head with a flail, by hand and the chaff swept away. The grain was then crushed into flour, also by hand. In later years, it was ground between large stones in a mill, which contributed fine bits of stone to the flour but greatly reduced the labour and time required.

Facts About Wheat Farming
Type of cradle scythe, patented in the U.S. by Samuel Warren, 1843.

The Age of Machinery

Horses, mules and oxen historically were the prime movers of wheat production through the ages. While the earliest ploughs could be pulled by human muscle, later ploughs and reapers were designed for horsepower. Companies such as McCormick, Studebaker, Case, Caterpillar, John Deere and International Harvester all catered to the vast farming industry beginning in the 19th century, producing reaping machines, combines, tractors, seeders and increasingly large ploughs designed for the huge farms of the American West. Breaking the thick virgin sod of the prairies required special ploughs and strong teams. The horse-drawn combination harvester, which reaped and separated the wheat from the chaff, was introduced in 1838. In some areas of the United States, such as the Palouse wheat farming region in Washington between 1900 and 1950, wheat harvesting involved teams of up to 40 horses or mules pulling combines over the large, rolling hills. The invention of hillside combines with a hydraulic levelling system on the header, which accommodates the steep slopes of the Palouse, allowed even more land to be put into cultivation.

Facts About Wheat Farming
Harvesting wheat in Oregon.

Wheat Farming Today

In 1900, the United States produced 552 million bushels of wheat from 42 million acres in cultivation. In 2007, it produced 2.17 billion bushels on 60 million acres, and still it ranked third in the world behind China and India, testament to the continuing importance of wheat to the world's food supply. Worldwide, wheat production has doubled since 1960, even though wheat is a difficult crop, prone to failure from too much rain, too little rain, and rain at the wrong times of the year, which can rot the heads and render the entire crop unfit for human consumption. While in many countries small farm plots are the norm, and wheat is still planted and harvested by hand, in mechanised societies large operations are usual, both because of the cost of the equipment required, and the sheer acreage required to turn a profit.

Facts About Wheat Farming
Combine pulled by a tractor

Wheat Farming Challenges

Challenges to wheat farming arise from wheat prices that have remained relatively low for decades despite skyrocketing costs of equipment, fuel, fertiliser and pesticides. Per the Trade Research Center of Montana University in 1997, "since the 1950s, yields have increased and real prices (prices in constant dollars) have declined at an average annual rate of -2.7 per cent. The price of wheat in 1960, in 1995 dollars, was about £6 per bushel. The price is currently around £2 per bushel, and has not been above £3 per bushel since 1980, except for a brief period in 1996. If prices continue on the same long-term trend until 2020, the price of a bushel of wheat will be under £1.90 (in 1995 dollars)." A brief spike in price in 2008 was followed by an equally swift decline. With the cost of fuel rising through £1.90 dollars a gallon but wheat prices failing to match inflation, it is little wonder that the family farm, once the backbone of the American agricultural economy, continues to disappear.

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