A couple of weeks ago, I was making a short shopping run into Tooele and headed south on SR-36 coming out of north Erda. I immediately noticed a sizable dust cloud up ahead off to my right. I haven’t seen much dust coming from that area before, so my immediate thought was that there was some new construction underway.
Instead, I was pleased to see a harvest of wheat underway. As the combine made its way across the field, both dust from the dried wheat stalks as well as from the ground rose from the path of the tractor. I’m glad the operator was in an enclosed cab, with good visibility and where the air was filtered and cool.
Such pieces of modern farming equipment have greatly enhanced productivity and allowed the product to be available to more people at a lesser cost. I can grow a bit nostalgic about farming from time to time, but the fact is that good machinery has done wonders over the years in reducing labor, increasing yield, and making the important work of food production safer.
As picturesque and appealing a field of golden grain is, the reality is that it’s dry, brittle, and dusty. Manual harvesting is thirsty, itchy work! Growing wheat in our area of the country allows the field to be irrigated during the crop’s active growing season, and then dried when the wheat is mature mid-summer. This reduces moisture in the stalks and grain, reducing mold problems as well as making the stalks stiff enough to stand up and be able to have them cut off easily by the combine, rather than “mushing” over.
Before the combine came into common use, wheat harvesting on the American farm was a labor-intensive endeavor that called upon both young and old, male and female, to get the job done. Since wheat was usually planted in the fall, grew over the winter and into the spring, harvesting was done in summer. It took everyone that was available to do either the harvesting work itself, or to prepare and serve meals and water to the hungry and thirsty crews. This went on for the harvesting season along with all the other tasks that living on a farm requires. Apparently, there was no time for boredom
In the 1920s, ripe wheat was cut using a horse-drawn binder machine, made into bundles and tossed into windrows for further drying. A short time later, the bundles where gathered into larger bundles called shucks. When dried sufficiently, the wheat was processed through a thresher to separate the grain from the stalks. Later on, the wheat was milled into flour. For an engaging look at farm life in the last century, visit www.livinghistoryfarm.org. Click on the links on the left where you can see farming practices beginning in the 1920s and up through today.
It’s evident that wheat has had a long history with mankind, with much of human’s sustenance coming from it. Although modern varieties have benefited from hybridization, differing varieties and precursors of today’s wheat have served both man and animals well. When something has been around that long, there is a sizable learning curve of “trial and error.” This applies not only to how to best grow wheat, but also to harvest, store, process and distribute it.
There has been much implemented over the years in making processing safer. There are historical accounts, back to medieval times, of mill explosions. It’s still a risk today and needs to be actively managed with a whole series of safety practices. Even so, from time to time, you hear of a mill blast.
How can this happen? Flour contains a very high percentage of starch. Most of us that are mindful of our diets know that starch is a carbohydrate. “Carbs” are made of chains of sugar molecules comprised of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Sugar is actually quite flammable as demonstrated by that last marshmallow roast where you ended with more than your fair share of charred sugar! In fact, any carb-based powder can pack quite an explosive punch. This includes items such as pudding mix, tapioca powder, or even fine coal dust or sawdust. I’ve seen the last one firsthand when I’ve tossed a handful of sanding dust into an open flame. Impressive stuff.
These types of materials become exponentially flammable when they are suspended in the air in the form of dust. As for flour, the dust grains are so tiny that they burn instantly. When one grain burns, it ignites other grains around it, and a wall of flame will flash outward through a dust cloud with explosive force.
Even with all of the labor, resources and care that must be taken in raising wheat, wheat has been, and will continue to be, highly desirable. It’s one of the “big three” cereal grains, along with rice and maize (corn). These three comprise about 50 percent of the total (all food sources combined) human daily caloric intake worldwide.
Wheat is also used to produce alcoholic beverages, including whiskey, gin and yes, even vodka — traditionally crafted from potatoes. Wheat’s utility doesn’t end with human consumption — it is also used as a livestock feed, as well as production of some industrial products, such as adhesives.
The majority of wheat in our diets is from flour. Various types of breads are found throughout time and all major cultures. Some are leavened; some are not. Some are in loaf form, others are flat or ball-shaped. Yet others are in sticks or long narrow shapes. You can find breads that are chewy, crusty, soft, dry or moist.
Even though it is problematic to some people, wheat flour’s key ingredient, gluten, is what makes it so desirable to bake bread with (rye and barley also have gluten). Gluten is a protein that forms long chains when mixed and kneaded. This gives structure and volume to the bread. Gluten strands trap tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide generated by yeast in the dough. This allows the bread to rise and reduce in density. To get a clear picture of a dough doesn’t rise, think cornbread. Although delicious, it’s very different from a wheat-based yeast bread!
Sensitivity to gluten ranges from celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder) to varying degrees of gluten intolerance. In the U.S., less than one percent of the population is diagnosed with celiac disease. Even so, for each person with this condition, approximately 20 more make the choice to live a gluten-free lifestyle. Many people simply feel better if gluten is avoided; others have symptoms that lead them to identify themselves as gluten-intolerant, or to pursue a formal diagnosis.
Here at home, Tooele County has a rich wheat tradition, as evidenced by the fact that the Benson Gristmill was erected in 1851 to mill flour from the grains produced in the valley. Along the way, it served various purposes, including grinding of grains for livestock feed. If you’ve not visited the gristmill, why not? You shouldn’t miss it. For more information, visit www.bensonmill.org. It’s a load of fun, and my kind of “edutainment.” By the way, for you “wordies” out there, did you know that the term “grist” is simply defined as grain that is ground to make flour? Now you know.
No treatise on wheat would be worthwhile without mentioning another related product that plays an important part in historic and contemporary farming: straw. Straw and hay are two different things. Straw is the stalk of cereal grains (including rice), and has very low nutritional value. This is in contrast with hay, which provides needed nutrients to livestock. There are two basic types of hay: legumes and grasses. Just in case you didn’t know, alfalfa is a legume.
Back to straw — an important agricultural product on its own. Besides the common use of animal stall bedding and mulch, its uses are too numerous to list. Suffice it to say that straw is used around the world in an astounding array of applications, including energy production, erosion control, apparel, packaging, horticulture and construction.
So, the next time you bite into a piece of bread, or see the wheat fields along SR-36, remember you are experiencing part of a millennia-old tradition that will be with us for long time to come.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.