Wheat

July 09, 2021

Even while we sped past the vast prairies of the Flint Hills, their competition was also evident.  Scattered along the highway were fields of cut wheat that seemed to go on forever.  While I never worked the wheat harvest, I knew others who did.  They would form great caravans of grain trucks pulling combines from field to field.  The wheat harvest would start in Texas and then work its way up to Canada.  The harvest always revolved around rain.  You needed the right amount (not too much) to make the wheat grow, but it also had to stop long enough to let the wheat dry out.  You needed to get into the dry field to cut the wheat before getting more rain.  It always seemed to be a juggling act.  I was once told if you held your tongue exactly right you might have a good crop.

Winter wheat (usually Triticum aestivum) are strains of wheat that are planted in the autumn to germinate and develop into young plants that remain in the vegetative phase during the winter and resume growth in early spring.  Classification into spring or winter wheat traditionally refers to the season during which the crop is grown.  For winter wheat, the physiological stage of heading (when the ear first emerges) is delayed until the plant experiences vernalization, a period of 30 to 60 days of cold winter temperatures (32F to 41F; 0C to 5C).  Winter wheat in the US is usually planted from September to November and harvested in the summer or early autumn of the next year.  Hard winter wheats usually yield more than spring wheat and have a higher gluten protein content. They are used to make flour for yeast breads or blended with soft spring wheats to make the all-purpose flour used in a variety of baked goods.  Pure soft wheat is used for specialty (cake) flour.  Durum is the hardest wheat and is primarily used for making pasta.  Bread, cake, and pasta.  Sounds like a meal!

The county where I grew up in Kansas had for years made the claim to be the Wheat Capital of the World.  The claim was supported by the fact the county grew the most wheat in Kansas (the Wheat State), which grew the most wheat in the US, which grew the most wheat in the world.  Even as a boy I recognized the potential flaw in this logic.  That did not keep my county from making the claim, or from holding the Wheat Festival every year in late July.  This event roped off three blocks of Main Street and filled them with rides, arcades, and food trucks calling for my attention.  I have fond memories of walking the five blocks to Main Street during the summers I lived there to wander about the fair.

Thoughts:  A recent study of the wheat harvest by Kansas State University researchers found that in the coming decades at least one-quarter of the world’s traded wheat will be lost to extreme weather from climate change unless adaptive measures are taken.  The USAID Feed the Future Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab (how about that name!) at K-State found wheat yields are projected to decrease by 6 percent for each degree Celsius the temperature rises.  Based on the typical harvest worldwide of 700 million tons, the resulting temperature increase would result in 42 million tons less wheat per degree.  That amounts to a quarter of the global wheat trade.  That is more challenging as the world will have to double our food supply in the next 30 years if we are going to feed the estimated 9.6 billion people.  As my brother commented, “Hurricanes and wildfires are one thing, but now climate change is threatening my sandwich!”  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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