From Russia with Wheat
Somewhere around home there’s a photograph of my grandfather nearly overtopped in a field of his wheat. Grandpa was not a tall man, but still, to modern folk accustomed to stubby, semi-dwarf varieties, it appears that either Grandpa was really short or the wheat was really tall. The latter was the case. Wheats of those days were tall enough to hide in.
Perhaps you’ve read accounts of Civil War battles in which infantry advanced across a wheat field, and in your mind’s eye, you saw the soldiers terribly exposed. In fact, they may have been pretty well hidden.
Both the western European wheats of Civil War days and the Russian wheats of my grandfather’s time were tall, but they were otherwise quite different, because the Russian wheats were much better adapted for raising on the Great Plains. This makes sense, giventhe environmental similarities between the Russian steppes and the American plains.
Now an English scholar, David Moon of Durham University, has taken an interest in the connections between these two historic wheat-growing regions and published his research in the Journal of Global History. It turns out that some of our old stories about the importation of Russian wheats to North America are questionable, but in fact the links between the two lands are more extensive than we have known.
What Moon documents is that Russian and American scientists were in contact and sought to learn from one another. Generally the Russians knew more about us than we knew about them, likely because so few American researchers could read the Russian literature. A century ago our two countries were the leading exporters of wheat, a situation that would change with the Bolshevik Revolution. Communist control of agriculture, to put it mildly, did not make for the most efficient production.
People on the central plains are much attached to the story of Turkey Red wheat, the hard red winter wheat said to have been brought to the plains by Mennonite Germans from Russia. Likely it was, but there is no sound documentation of its importation by the earliest Mennonite immigrants. Bernhard Warketin, the miller, imported fairly large quantities, and Mark Carlton, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, brought Turkey wheat seed in huge lots at the turn of the twentieth century.
Moon sorts through the mythology of Turkey Red pretty well, and also touches on the importation of Kubanka durum wheat by Carlton. Kubanka was raised as a winter wheat in Russia. Moon explains that Russian farmers had taken to raising durum to supply the southern European pasta market. Here in America Kubanka was raised as a spring wheat, on the northern plains.
There is no good story about the standard bread wheat of a century ago on the northern plains-Marquis (say it MAR-quis, not Mar-KEE)-but it also came from the Ukraine, via Canada, in 1842. I could make up a story about Marquis wheat, or instead I could suggest this: we really don’t know that much about how our farmers on the Great Plains came to raise this or that variety of wheat. We have the scientific literature, and the scholar James Malin made good use of newspaper reports, but what is needed is close study of farmers’ writings and the proceedings of their agricultural societies up and down the plains.
Our country produces about as many stories as it does bushels of wheat, and this one, about how we got our Russian wheats, we can tell a little better now than we did before.