wheat drawing

An ancient grain, wheat was brought to Minnesota by the early white settlers. Soldiers from Fort Snelling built the first flour mill on the Saint Anthony Falls in 1823. Later it was planted sporadically by a few more of the settlers. However, wheat was not commercially important until the late 1850s. The St. Anthony Falls provided the power, the Mississippi River and later the trains provided the transportation. By 1860 the total state production was 2,186,973 bushels, impressive compared with the total in 1850—1,401. In 1880 almost 70 % of Minnesota’s farmland (4.4 million acres) was planted in wheat, producing more than 34 million bushels of wheat that year. The state’s weather with cool nights allowed wheat to produce more protein, making the wheat grown here a commodity of high value.

Keeping pace with production was the rapid rise of flour milling. At first mills were built wherever water could be harnessed to run a mill. But increasingly they were built in Minneapolis, which became known as the Mill City. In the peak years, the Washburn Crosby Company A Mill processed more than 175 railroad cars of wheat each day. From that amount 12 million loaves of bread could be baked daily from 1880 until 1930. By 1876 there were 18 flour mills along the river. And by 1882 Minnesota emerged as the world’s leading flour-milling center. 

Several important innovations made processing faster, safer, and of higher quality. Edmond LaCroix, a French inventor hired by owners of the Washburn “A” Mill, developed the “middlings purifier.” This machine used air jets to separate the bran from the usable part of the flour. In addition millers began using roller mills, not grindstones. These rollers, made of metal or porcelain, gradually broke down the grain, integrating the gluten with the starch. This produced more flour from a pound of grain and produced a product with a longer shelf life. A safer ventilation system, called the Berhns Millstone Exhaust System, was also installed. This was a method which reduced the amount of flour dust in the mills, dust which could catch fire from a tiny spark. These innovations made Minnesota’s wheat highly desirable to trade. Minneapolis was proclaimed the “Flour Milling Capital of the World.” Thousands of jobs were created for farmers, for mill operators, for distributors, and for sales people as the industry soared.

Sadly, the milling industry began to decline starting in the early 1900s. Due to advancing technology, other cities caught up to Minneapolis in flour production. Also Minnesota wheat growing struggled from 1930 to 1970 due to an aggressive disease known as stem rust. This deadly fungus attacks the stems of wheat and spreads quickly. In 1935 50% of the wheat crop in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota combined was lost to stem rust. 19 years later in 1954 30% of the crop was lost. It was not until 1965 that the leaf and stem rust resistant variety, ‘Chris’ wheat, was bred at the University of Minnesota. Five years later ‘Era’ wheat was introduced, the first semi-dwarf wheat variety, spurring a 25 % increase in crop yield and the world-wide “Green Revolution” in food production. The Father of the Green Revolution, Normal Borlaug, was an important plant breeder at the University of Minnesota who developed this semi-dwarf wheat. Today the newest variety of wheat is called RB07. Minnesota now ranks third, after Montana and North Dakota, in production of spring wheat for the U.S. The University of Minnesota reports that recently farmers are expressing a renewed interest in growing wheat and other small grains.

wheat field

Bonanza Farms

Bonanza farms were enormous farms that came about as a result of the failed financial investments of the Northern Pacific Railroad, in the 1870s. To pay back investors, mostly Easterners, the bankrupt company allowed the investors to exchange their bonds for land. These urbanites created bonanza farms in the Red River Valley, western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, making the area one of the country’s largest wheat producing areas. The absentee owners hired local managers to run the farms, using cheap hired labor and highly mechanized equipment. Between 1875 and 1890 these huge acreages were enormously profitable. Over time the land became exhausted, the farms were no long profitable, and the investors sold out and moved on. By the 1920s, the bonanza boom had busted.

Wheat and the Environment

The major environmental problem in growing wheat is soil degradation. Wheat uses much nitrogen from the soil, gradually depleting it. This problem can be remedied when wheat is rotated with a nitrogen-fixing crop, such as soybeans or alfalfa. Unfortunately, farmers may forgo crop rotation to meet higher yields.

Farmers of the plains, including those in Minnesota, experienced a period of soil degradation during the 1930s. The high prices of grain during World War I enticed farmers to plant as many acres of wheat as they could. Also an unusually wet period had encouraged settlement in the central U.S. The stock market crashed in 1929, causing the price of wheat to plummet, so some farmers abandoned their fields. And in 1930 a deep and extended drought began. Farmers had planted wheat primarily, had often failed to rotate crops or leave land fallow, and had not planted wind breaks or cover crops. When the drought came, with no natural anchors to hold it in place, the soil turned to dust and blew away. From 1934 to 1937 the region experienced the Dust Bowl. At times these severe storms blackened the skies. They caused major agricultural and ecological damage, and forced many farmers to leave their homes. We can hope that this tragedy of monoculture and poor soil care can point to a better way for today’s farmers.

Wheat is very susceptible to many different types of diseases, such as viral, bacterial, fungal, along with pests and nematodes. There are many variations of each type of disease. Common fungal diseases would be rust and scab. Both of these disease lead to discoloration of the plant and are responsible for the loss of millions of wheat each year. An interesting type of viral disease is mosaic, which leaves yellow streaks on the leaves. A destructive pest is the wheat curl mite, which actually curls the leaves of the wheat plant inwards. And the nematodes are microscopic organisms that burrow into the plants and suck out the contents of the cell.

Currently, there are very few methods of eradicating the diseases naturally. Most solutions include the use of pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides. Two natural methods are the use of crop rotation and the burning and tilling of the land. However, many farmers are reluctant to do this because of the financial loss it would impose on them.

Did You Know?

  • The scientific name for wheat is Triticum aestivum.
  • Wheat is a member of the grass family.
  • Wheat originated in the “cradle of civilization” in the Tigris and Euphrates river valley.
  • Wheat was first planted in North America in 1777 as a hobby crop.
  • Wheat is grown in 42 states.
  • More foods are made with wheat than any other cereal grain.
  • Wheat has a higher protein content than either corn or rice, the other major cereals.
  • Wheat is grown on more land area worldwide than any other crop and is a close third to rice and corn in world production.
  • Wheat is well adapted to harsh environments and is mostly grown on windswept areas too cold and too dry for rice and corn.
  • Wheat is known as “the staff of life” and is vital to diets and cultures around the world.
  • Hard wheat is used in baking bread because of its ability to hold water.
  • Soft wheat is used in baking pastries and cakes because of its fine consistency and feel.
  • The Chamber of Commerce was originally started for the trading of grains in Minneapolis. It became the Minneapolis Grain Exchange and has now become one of the largest markets for cash exchange in the world.

For more information see the 10 Plants That Changed Minnesota MSHS book.