Thornhill gives wheat history

It’s June again, and as always, I’m reminded of Robin Williams playing Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning Vietnam.” After the rousing greeting, he’d do a weather report. “It’s hot. Dang hot. Real hot.” And, as always, I’d like to especially bless Mr. Carrier for inventing air conditioning.

I also think of how easy I have it compared to my ancestors and ancestresses (that’s a word now). Not only were those ladies wading around the prairie in long heavy skirts (don’t get me started on what dealing with ticks must have been like), they had no electricity, no appliances, and no indoor plumbing. Every single job around the house involved either hot water, a hot stove, or both. It’s a wonder they didn’t just dissolve into puddles of sweat.

The menfolk didn’t have it any easier. Farm work didn’t conveniently confine itself to the cool times of day, or to large patches of shade. Gatorade and Body Armor weren’t a thing. I’m pretty sure the ticks didn’t leave them alone either.

The first wheat crop in Kansas was grown at the Shawnee Methodist Mission near Fairway in Johnson County in 1839. Originally, soft wheat was grown, with little success. Mennonites introduced Turkey Red hard winter wheat in 1874. This variety was so successful that it is the ancestor of all hard winter wheat grown in the Great Plains today. Bernard Warkentin was instrumental in not only bringing the seed to America, but encouraging Mennonites to settle in this area and raise it.

The first machines to harvest wheat were Cyrus McCormick’s binder and header. The header was pushed, not pulled, by 6-8 horses. From these machines, the wheat heads went into a thresher to remove the chaff. A crew of over 30 friends, family and/or hired hands were needed for the operation, which took several days. Threshers had to be moved from farm to farm at night, traveling at speeds up to four miles an hour. They would set up at the next farm, ready bright and early for the next day’s work.

The combine (so named because it “combines” heading and threshing) gained popularity in the early 1900s. At that time, horsepower was key, namely the thirty or so horses to pull the actual implement, and the six or so to pull the grain sack wagon. Combines could weigh over fifteen tons and the header could be thirty feet wide. The combine could harvest forty acres a day. Tractor-drawn combines appeared in 1925, courtesy of the International Harvester company. By 1930, Kansas farmers owned nearly 1/3 of combines in America. In 1939, Massey-Harris produced the first self-propelled combine. Even though these only harvested around thirty acres a day, farmers could afford three or four combines. Despite their lack of size, the self propelled combines were cheaper and more efficient.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Kansas is the leading wheat production state in the US, producing 363 million bushels in 2021. Kansas is also the largest flour milling state. The wheat industry is vital to Kansas, contributing almost $4 billion to the economy and supporting over 30,000 jobs. 36 billion loaves of bread could be baked with each year’s wheat harvest, enough to feed everyone in the world for two weeks.

In 1886, Kansas wheat farmers grew wheat on 68,000 acres, reaping only 19 bushels per acre. In 2014, wheat producers harvested 8.8 million acres, reaping 38 bushels per acre. Thanks to better machinery and better strains of seed, we Kansans truly do feed the world. And, I’ll bet with those nice modern air conditioned cabs, farmers probably don’t have to worry nearly as much about ticks either.

Despite generations of farming blood running through my veins, I have a mostly black thumb. I only seem to be able to keep a few certain types of plants alive, and even that is probably due to some secret help by Darling Hubby, the gardener in the family. Happily, it seems I can add one more species to my list of “tough enough to survive” plants.

I picked up four different varieties of daylilies from Jana over at Serenity Gardens. Imagine my delight to discover that daylilies thrive in direct sunlight and poor soil. The little darlings have not only not died, they have put on tons of buds and begun to bloom. I almost feel like a gardener now, and I can retreat into the air conditioning any time I please. Ah, luxury.

Happy Wheat Harvest 2022, everyone. Remember to be patient with farmers on the roads. Look on the bright side, at least it’s not a gigantic thresher clipping along at 4 MPH. Stay safe out there, folks!

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