History of Wheat Back »

This article was written by Randy Englund, South Dakota Wheat Commission Executive Director.

Historical Origins

Wheat has played a prominent role throughout history. References to wheat are worldwide. Ancient Chinese writings from 2,700 years before Christ describe growing wheat. It is referenced in the Bible and indeed held in reverence as noted in the Lord’s Prayer.

Many centuries ago, the philosopher Socrates said, “No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant on the problems of wheat.” He was pointing out that, in order to successfully govern a nation, a leader has to know the strengths and weaknesses of his country, and wheat was an important factor. Back then, bread was the staple food in much of the Middle East and Europe, and a lack of wheat could mean defeat of an army and the conquest of a country.

Wars have been fought and lost over wheat. Napoleon could no longer feed his troops because their rapid advance caused them to leave grain behind. Even the Civil War is described as a victory of bread over cotton. The North had cereal grains to feed their troops and to trade with Europe whereas the South had non-edible cotton.

President Hoover is quoted as saying, “The first word in war is spoken by guns, the last word has always been spoken by bread.”

Wheat Origins in the United States

Wheat production and trade in North America has been an important industry ever since the Europeans came across the vast prairies of the West and Northwest. Red wheat, in particular, was transplanted to North America by Russian Mennonites between 1874 and 1884. The Mennonites, who settled in Kansas in the late 1800's, brought with them seeds of Turkey Red Wheat, a hard winter wheat that proved to be a productive staple for future American families. Mennonite children in Russia hand-picked the first seeds of this famous winter wheat for Kansas. Shortly after arriving in New York, the Mennonites planted this Red Wheat.

Wheat Classification

Wheat is not just wheat. It is a basic material that changes character and adaptability to the needs of the trade with each harvest according to growing conditions, geographical location, and the variety of the wheat itself. Each of the over 200 varieties of wheat grown in the U.S. are divided into classes according to three distinguishing features:

1. Growing habits of the wheat plant.

  • Winter (planted in the fall in areas of milder climate)
  • Spring (planted in the spring, specifically in this region and farther north)

2. Color of the wheat kernel.

  • Red
  • White
  • Amber (durum wheat)

3. Texture of the ripened grain.

  • Hard (hard wheat tends to be higher in protein and gluten content and the principal use is high rising bread flours)
  • Soft (soft wheat is lower in protein and is chiefly milled for cakes, cookies, pastries, some Asian noodles, and crackers, while durum wheat, when milled into semolina, is primarily raised for pasta or macaroni products)

In the United States we produce six distinct classifications of wheat each with unique characteristics influencing the intended end use. When milled (ground), the flour from these wheat classes are used in many of the products we consume in our daily diets.

The six official classes are:

  1. Hard Red Winter  (used for yeast breads and hard rolls)
  2. Hard Red Spring (used for yeast breads and hard rolls and blending with lesser protein wheats)
  3. Soft Red Winter (used for flat breads, cakes, pastries, and crackers)
  4. Soft White (used for flat breads, cakes, pastries, and crackers)
  5. Hard White (a relatively new class being developed used for yeast breads, hard rolls, and noodles)
  6. Durum (used for pasta and macaroni)

South Dakota raises Hard Red Winter Wheat, Hard Red Spring Wheat, Hard White Wheat, and Durum.

Although wheat is planted and harvested almost every day somewhere in the world, the United States has the resources and infrastructure to provide its citizens and the world with the most abundant, reliable, and safest supply of wheat in the world.

Wheat as a food source derives its importance from its ability to adapt to new climate conditions and market requirements. From wheat to flour, the conscientious efforts of wheat farmers working with scientists, researchers, and technicians to provide the American public and consumers of the world one of the most economical, plentiful, and nutritious groups of food available.

For more information, access Chapter 2, “Wheat Classes, History & Breeding Timelines” of the book, “iGrow Wheat: Best Management Practices for Wheat Production,” available online in the iGrow Wheat Resource Library.

You can purchase a copy of “iGrow Wheat: Best Management Practices for Wheat Production” online at the iGrow Store.

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