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Kansas farmers set to harvest their 150th crop of hard red winter wheat
Wheat Scoop
wheat crop.psd

The world is holding its breath this year for the Kansas wheat harvest to kick into full swing, but 150 years ago, the first harvest of Turkey Red wheat was largely dismissed as a small experiment. The introduction and adoption of this single variety, however, would forever change the wheat industry and establish the genetic lineage for the wheat Kansas farmers will harvest this summer. 

“Probably no year holds more significance to the wheat industry in Kansas than 1874,” said Aaron Harries, Kansas Wheat vice president of research and operations. “The Mennonite farmers who emigrated that year to Kansas from Ukraine helped develop Kansas into a rich and productive agricultural economy. These families brought with them Turkey Red winter wheat, and – as they say, the rest is history.” 

The Kansas territory officially became the state of Kansas on Jan. 28, 1861. Just months before the start of the Civil War, frontier farming looked very different than today’s modern farmsteads. The soft wheat planted in Western Europe was considered ill-suited for Kansas, requiring substantial labor to plant by hand and to thresh by beating wheat heads against rocks. 

The 34th state changed quickly, thanks to the signing of the Homestead Act in 1862, which gave citizens or future citizens up to 160 acres of land if they lived on and improved it for five years. The first train tracks from east to west were laid the next year. Homesteaders loaded into covered wagons and train cars, answering the call to “Go West, young man” and carve out new lives for themselves and their families on the Kansas prairie. 

One hopeful homesteader, Bernard Warkentin, a Mennonite miller from Crimea, settled near Halstead, Kan., in 1871. He carried the seeds of Turkey Red wheat, a hard winter wheat variety that was tremendously successful in Eastern Europe. The hardy variety was planted in the fall and could be harvested in the summer, allowing it to take advantage of timely moisture and withstand the cold Kansas winters that left settlers burning buffalo chips to stay warm. The first field of Turkey Red wheat was planted in Marion County in 1873 and harvested in the summer of 1874. 

That same year would change the trajectory of Kansas agriculture forever, thanks to 12,000 German Mennonites who left modern Ukraine specifically to settle in Kansas at the invitation from the railroad and with promised religious freedom from the young state government. 

Like Warkentin, his fellow Mennonites brought their favorite wheat, toting hand-picked seeds in large jars and sacks. They also brought game-changing farming practices like leaving fields fallow in between planting cycles, applying fertilizer to fields and using large threshing stones to separate the wheat kernels from the stalks that enveloped them.

Turkey Red was revolutionary, but it took time for the milling industry to adjust from milling soft wheat with lower protein and weaker gluten (think soft cookies) to the new hard red winter wheat, which had higher protein and stronger gluten (think of a loaf of bread that holds its shape). Just as the farmers discovered the hardiness of Turkey Red and the millers unlocked its better quality, the variety quickly spread and took over Kansas agriculture. 

By 1919, Turkey Red wheat constituted more than 82 percent of planted acres in Kansas. It remained the most popular variety until 1939 — maintaining its dominance as superior genetics for crossing into new varieties. 

“There was simply nothing like it at that time,” Harries said. “Turkey Red became the most desirable wheat in the world, and Kansas became the world’s breadbasket.” 

Today, half of Kansas wheat varieties can trace their lineage back to Turkey Red. Wheat breeders improved on Turkey Red wheat, establishing shorter modern varieties with built-in disease resistance and improved yield potential while maintaining milling and baking quality. That research into what made Turkey Red so special continues, with researchers unlocking the variety’s genetic coding and using the variety in research projects comparing responses to management — like nutrient uptake — between heritage and modern varieties. 

Thanks to Turkey Red, Kansas farmers will harvest their 150th hard red winter wheat crop this summer, and billions of bread loaves and other products will be baked to feed families around the world. 

Learn more about Turkey Red and the Mennonite farmers who brought the variety to Kansas in an episode of the “Wheat’s On Your Mind” podcast.