History and Origin of Wheat

Wheat is grown on more land area worldwide than any other crop and is a close third to rice and corn in total world production. Wheat is well adapted to harsh environments and is mostly grown on wind swept areas that are too dry and too cold for the more tropically inclined rice and corn, which do best at intermediate temperature levels.

Wheat is believed to have originated in south­western Asia. Some of the earliest remains of the crop have been found in Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. Primitive relatives of present-day wheat have been discovered in some of the oldest excavations of the world in eastern Iraq, which date back 9,000 years. Other archeological findings show that bread wheat was grown in the Nile Valley at about 5,000 B.C. as well as in India, China, and even England at about the same time. Wheat was first grown in the United States in 1602 on an island off the Massachusetts coast. Man has depended upon the wheat plant for himself and his beasts for thousands of years. A global wheat failure would be a disaster that few nations could survive for even one year.

Although the so‑called bread wheats are common to most of us, there are many uncertainly related species that make up the genus Triticum. This likely was due to a number of natural crossings with wild species during its early evolution. Some of the species closely related to our common wheats would be einkorn, emmer, durum, and spelt.

Predominate Growing Areas for Wheat:

The United States grew just over 62 million acres of wheat in 2000 with an average yield of 41.9 bushels per acre. The top states in acreage grown are Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, and Washington. Other leading producers are Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota.

About 70 percent of the wheat planted in the United States is winter wheat (fall seeded). Of the remaining wheat acreage, 24 percent is planted to spring wheat (spring seeded) and 6 percent to durum (spring seeded). Although five major classes of wheat are grown in the United States, the two major wheats are hard‑red spring and hard‑red winter, and both are bread wheats.

A bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds.

Heirloom Turkey Red Wheat – A Pacifist Variety

The “Turkey” variety of hard red winter wheat was introduced to Kansas in 1873, carried by Mennonite immigrants from Crimea in the Ukraine, fleeing Russian forced military service. In the mid-1880s, grainsman Bernard Warkentin imported some 10,000 bushels of Turkey seed from the Ukraine, the first commercially available to the general public in the US. That 10,000 bushels (600,000 pounds) would plant some 150 square miles (10,000 acres).  Heritage wheat varieties like Turkey Red were what was grown before the so-called “Green Revolution”.

The Post WWII Green Revolution’s impact on Wheat

The “Green Revolution”, started after WW II as a way to market the nitrates that had been used in the manufacture of wartime explosives. That was also when wheat began to be hybridized for yield rather than flavor and nutrition. All modern wheat varieties are derived from crosses with a dwarf wheat from Japan and, therefore, grow to only around two feet tall.

These two developments, government-funded breeding programs and the heavy use of agricultural chemicals, which were duplicated in other crops such as rice and corn, tripled or even quadrupled yields – but at a cost. The use of stimulating chemicals means many more plants can be grown per square foot than without their use. However, the short modern wheat hybrids don’t shade out weeds when they grow, so farmers also need to apply herbicides. The resulting genetically homogeneous crops and fields then become more vulnerable to pest and disease epidemics, necessitating the application of pesticides and fungicides.

Heritage Wheat’s Natural Sustainability

Heritage wheat is much taller than modern varieties, shading out weeds. Because it can be sown at much-reduced rates per acre compared to modern wheat, it can tolerate much poorer soils as it has a larger root system to seek out moisture and nutrients. If you do apply a concentrated chemical fertilizer, it will grow too tall and lodge or fall over! A good yield for organically grown (no chemicals) heritage wheat is 25 bushels per acre. Modern wheat, grown chemically, can, in exceptional cases, produce 100 bushels per acre.

There is anecdotal evidence to support the assertion that the changes made during the hybridization of modern wheat also changed the protein and gluten structure of the grain. And that these changes have made hybrid grain more difficult to digest. This is thought to be the cause of wheat intolerance in some people.

When Turkey Red is milled, the bran appears to mill finer than in modern hard red wheat. The smell during milling is different too. Modern wheat has a strong, almost musty, but not unappealing, smell while it is milling, but the Turkey Red has almost no smell at all until you put your nose right up to it. The gluten appears different as well. When it is being mixed, it seems to form a workable dough much sooner than modern bread wheat. The resulting bread is light and very flavorful, with a moist crumb.