Turkey red wheat transformed Kansas agriculture 150 years ago

A photo from the Kansas Historical Society shows Bernhard Warkentin. Warkentin was incredibly important to Kansas agriculture, bringing turkey red wheat to Kansas and turning the state into a major wheat producer.

by Jessie Wagoneer

As the 2024 wheat harvest wraps up, it marks an important milestone in Kansas’ agricultural history: the 150th harvest of hard red winter wheat.

In 1874, Mennonite farmers introduced turkey red wheat to Kansas soil, transforming Kansas into an agricultural powerhouse that continues to be known as “Wheat State” or the “Breadbasket of the World.”

Bernhard Warkentin, originally from Crimea, settled near Halstead in 1871. He is credited with bringing turkey red wheat with him when he immigrated to the United States. This particular variety of wheat was known for its resilience and adaptability, making it a perfect fit for the ever-changing Kansas climate. The turkey red wheat was reported to have been planted for the first time in Marion County in 1874, 150 years ago.

Warkentin, with the turkey red wheat in tow, had quite a journey to make from Crimea to Kansas. According to information from the Warkentin House, Warkentin was born on June 19, 1847, in the small village of Allona in the Molotschna Mennonite colony in the Ukraine. By 1870, Russia enacted laws restricting religious freedom.

Because of this, many Mennonites began looking to relocate to areas of the world with good farmland and, most importantly, religious and educational freedom.

June 5, 1872, marks the day Warkentin and the turkey red wheat first set foot on American soil. He arrived in New York, looking for an adventure and a place to settle.

For several years Warkentin traveled to different areas of the country, stopping at Mennonite settlements. His journey led him to Illinois, Minnesota, Manitoba, Kansas and Texas.

When some of the Summerfield Mennonites purchased land near Halstead, Warkentin decided to join them in mid-1874,” the Warkentin House reports.

Once in Halstead, Warkentin opened a small mill, having learned from his father who was a farmer and miller. He married Wilhelmina Eisenmeyer on Aug. 12, 1875; she was also the child of a miller.

Before the 1870s, wheat was not a prominent crop in Kansas agriculture. Warkentin began encouraging farmers to transition from planting spring and soft wheat to hard winter wheat. Most significantly, he encouraged farmers to plant turkey red wheat from Russia, as he believed it was more suited for Kansas climate. Additionally, he had steel roller mills that could turn the wheat into high-quality flour.

In 1900, he worked with several groups to import 15,000 bushels of turkey red seed from Russia,” the Warkentin House records show.

Farmers, seeing much success with the turkey red wheat, continued planting it and expanding their efforts. Soon, Kansas became America’s breadbasket, and wheat production dominated Kansas agriculture.

Over the years, the wheat has been modified. However, the Kansas Historical Society says a large number of modern wheat varieties grown in Kansas today can be genetically traced to turkey red.

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