Sunday, January 1, 2017

HAWB – Creating America’s Amber Waves of Grain - How America Was Built

It wasn’t really the “captains of industry” like Henry Ford or Harvey Firestone or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. And it certainly wasn’t the filthy rich financiers of Wall Street like J.P. Morgan or Walter Wriston or Jimmie Dimon. If you want to know the story of how America was built, look at the scientists and the engineers. Like the virtually unknown and forgotten researchers and agronomists of the United States Department of Agriculture. America’s amber waves of grain from sea to shining sea is the story of these government employees as much as anyone else’s.

From the 1840s to the 1930, US production of wheat more than tripled in productivity. This remarkable progress is usually attributed to the replacement of animal power by mechanized agricultural equipment: the thresher, the binder, steam and then gas tractors, and the combine.

But this is actually only half the story. The other half involves the patient and methodical search and breeding of wheat strains to meet two goals. First, to find cultivars of wheat more resistant to diseases and pests. Second, to expand the areas in which wheat could be grown by finding varieties better suited to the harsher climates and conditions of the Great Plains and Pacific Coast states.

This work was largely accomplished by scientists, agronomists, and breeders working in the laboratories and experimental farms of the United States Department of Agriculture and the various state universities which had been established by federal land grants. According to economists Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, “biological innovations roughly equal[ed] the importance of mechanical advances.” [1]

This history contradicts  the conservative mythology of brave private entrepreneurs triumphing over the deadening hand of government interference in the economy. The discussion and debates in the Constitutional Convention of May 1787 show that “the Founders fully intended to create a national government with broad and far-reaching powers to ensure that all economic activity was channeled and directed to national development and the promotion of the general welfare.”

The history of agriculture in America shows how mundane, practical politics is steered to achieve the explicit Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare:

May 1862: An Act of Congress creates the Department of Agriculture:
There shall be at the seat of government a Department of Agriculture, the general design and duties of which shall be to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture, rural development, aquaculture, and human nutrition, in the most general and comprehensive sense of those terms, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.
July 1862: The Morrill Land-Grant Act grants 30,000 acres of federal land to each state to fund the construction and  “endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts….”

March 1887: The Hatch Act provides funding for the states to create and operate agricultural experiment stations for scientific agricultural research.

May 1914: The Smith–Lever Act of 1914 provides federal funding for each state to create a cooperative extension service, sending agents of the land-grant universities to every county of every state to disseminate and help apply the latest advances in agricultural science.

Locations of State Agricultural Experiment Stations

Teaching and learning this history is a necessary corrective to the misguided and anti-historical Republican opposition to government funding of science and research, which is about to be taken to new extremes as Trump dismantles the national government programs on climate science.

New varieties were crucial in battle against crop pests and diseases
Through the hard experiences of disastrous blights and infestations, farmers learned that wheat and other cereals eventually become more susceptible to diseases and pests. This is just basic evolution: diseases and pests change to better ensure their own survival. In the late 1700s and most of the 1800s, some of the most knowledgeable experts on wheat growing, responded to the latest plague  wiping out most of the wheat crop, by warning that the United States would soon be unable to grow enough to feed itself. Plagues and epidemics recurred at least every four or five years.
But the predictions of doom and famine never materialized, because of the efforts of USDA and the various state agricultural research stations to find and develop new cultivars of wheat. Olmstead and Rhode write:
The successive changes in varieties that began in the early colonial period were neither random nor haphazard. Rather the process led to a progression of varieties that were better able to cope with the evolving disease environment. By the end of the nineteenth century, researchers were playing an increasingly prominent role in the identification, creation, and diffusion of new varieties. The rapid rates of diffusion also testify to the economic value of the new releases—without this continuous process of technological replacement, wheat yields would have plummeted and remained low. [2]
In 1791, the wheat crop was attacked by the Hessian fly, which sucked sap from young plants, destroying them. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took a few days for a carriage expedition through New York and Connecticut to study and chart the fly’s path of destruction. Among the wheat growers who tested different varieties for their resistance to the Hessian fly was George Washington.

In September, 1800, Jefferson wrote, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an useful plant to it's culture; especially a bread grain.” [3] Three decades before the USDA was created during the Civil War, the Patent Office began collecting new seeds and plants, and mailing seeds to farmers — free of charge. This was begun in 1836, by Henry L. Ellsworth, Commissioner of the newly created Patent Office. On his own initiative, Ellsworth distributed the seeds and plants by using the franking privilege of cooperating Congressmen. [4] On March 3, 1839, Congress appropriated $l,000 to the Patent Office to fund the collection of agricultural statistics, conducting agricultural investigations, and distributing seeds. [5]

During the Hessian fly plague, farmers eagerly sought varieties reputed to be resistant to the insect.  At the same time various planters and researchers were testing for the best times and means for planting the various varieties to increase the crop’s chances of resisting. Within a few years, “researchers publicized fly-safe dates for every nook and cranny that grew wheat. The recommended dates varied by about two months with latitude, longitude, elevation, soil conditions, rainfall, and wheat varieties.”

After the USDA took over from the Patent Office, once individual farmers had discovered or bred superior strains, the USDA would distribute the new strain free of charge. In the 1860s, it was the USDA that was largely responsible for distributing the Fultz variety of semihard red wheat. The Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1875 reported on the results county by county around the country. In Orange County, North Carolina, for example, the Commissioner noted:
The Fultz wheat was extensively distributed last season and more so this. It has exceeded all other varieties in yield and quality. It seems better adapted than many other varieties to our climate. It was tested the past season with several new varieties brought from the North, and while they having an equal chance failed, it did well. It stood the unfavorable winter and late frosts with but little damage while other varieties were much injured. The largest yield without commercial fertilizers reported is 35 bushels from 1. It is regarded as among the best, if not the very best, variety in the county.
Bringing Amber Waves of Grain to the Great Plains
One of the most important examples of this work by USDA is Marquis, a hard red spring wheat noted for its superior milling and baking qualities, developed at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, Canada. The USDA tested Marquis in 1912-1913, then began distributing it in the Plains. By 1916, Marquis was the leading wheat variety grown in the Plains, dominating the Red River Valley and eastern South Dakota, and almost all of North Dakota.

Winter wheat requires a period of vernalization—prolonged exposure to cold temperatures—to shift into the reproductive phase of its life-cycle. It is therefore planted in the autumn, and harvested in late spring or early summer. Spring wheat can grow continuously through the year and does not require vernalization for its reproductive shift. Spring wheat is therefore grown in colder areas and planted just before the last freeze, and harvested in mid- to late summer. Spring wheats are also grown in areas with milder climates, such as California.

Farmers prefer to grow winter wheat because it has higher yields and is more resistant to pests and diseases. But winter wheat is much more likely to be killed or stunted by sustained cold, with much higher crop losses. Wheat varieties are further distinguished by the texture of the kernel (soft, semihard, and hard), and by the kernel’s color (white or red). Hard wheats are more resistant to drought, and grow better in arid regions than other varieties. Winter wheats also suffered because their straw was not strong enough to withstand high winds, resulting in high shattering losses. [p39]

The Great Plains of North America

The Plains states have longer, colder winters, and about half the precipitation as an eastern state such as Ohio. As settlers pushed further west and began farming, they suffered repeated crop failures in the mid-1800s. The strains of wheats they had brought with them from the East simply did not grow as well in the much different climate.

In 1898, Mark Alfred Carleton, assistant pathologist in USDA’s Division of Vegetable Physiology and Pathology, convinced Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson to send him to Russia to search for wheat varieties better suited to the North American Great Plains. [6]

In 1900, Carleton introduced American growers to durum wheats from Russia, a spring wheat that was more resistant to rust (a fungal disease that leaves brown marks on the green leaves) than other varieties then being grown. By 1903, durum production had reached seven million bushels, mostly in Minnesota and the Dakotas. In 1904, this region’s crop of Fife and Bluestem wheats were obliterated by a rust epidemic, with losses totaling up to an estimated 40 million bushels. But the durum varieties were largely unaffected, and in 1906 production of durum wheats more than replaced the losses, with 50 million bushels harvested.

By 1909, 64 percent of US wheat production came from the Plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, and the Palouse of eastern Washington and Oregon.  Carleton wrote that the geoclimatic conditions of the regions “are as different from each other as though they lay in different continents.

Mark Alfred Carleton crossing wheat strains at the USDA farm in Garrett, Park, Maryland, in 1894.

Altogether, Carleton introduced 260 cultivars of wheat and other crops to the United States. Among the most important were Crimean and Kharkof Turkey-type hard red winter wheats and Kubanka durum wheat. These varieties were further bred by state university researchers to develop other cultivars for specific regions. For example, ‘Kanred’ and ‘Tenmarq’ were the first improved wheats developed by the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, and ‘Cheyenne’, was one of the first cultivars developed by the Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station. [7]

In 1919, less than eight percent of U.S. wheat production consisted of varieties that had been planted before 1840, while roughly 80 percent consisted of varieties that had not existed in North America before 1873.  In 1839, there had been no durum or hard red wheats at all in the United States; by 1919 durum and hard reds accounted for 62.8 percent of total production.  Olmstead and Rhode note that “in the northern plains, the varieties around World War 1 offered a net return (combining yield and quality differences) that about doubled what could have been earned by growing the defunct varieties available in the United States and Canada in 1839.” [8]

As a result of these efforts initiated by Carleton, but aided by many, many others, the center of the wheat cultivation steadily shifted ever westward and northward. At the 97th meridian west—roughly the latitude running through Winnipeg, Manitoba and Wichita, Kansas—the latitude at which spring and winter wheats achieved equal output shifted north by around 650 miles. [9]

Wheat production in 1839 (top) and 1909. From Olmstead and Rhode.

Turning eastern Oregon and Washington into a world center of wheat
In the Pacific Northwest, when the first recorded wheat harvest occurred at Fort Vancouver, Washington,  it was generally considered impossible to grow wheat east of the Cascades range in the semi-arid eastern parts of Washington and Oregon, an area known as the Palouse. But by the 1890s, farmers had found a number of soft spring wheat varieties that could be grown. Olmstead and Rhode write that “the variety of choice was closely matched to the subregion’s expected rainfall. In areas with greater than 20 inches, Little Club dominated; in areas with 18 inches, Red Chaff was the clear favorite; and areas with less than 17 inches grew Pacific Bluestem. This pattern reflected the proven superiority of each variety for the local micro-climates…. In the period 1918-1919, twelve varieties accounted for 93 percent of Washington wheat output. None of these varieties had existed in the United States in 1839.” [10]

How were farmers able to achieve such specific matching of wheat varieties with the climate of their locale? There are two answers: the remarkable wheat research program created by the state governments of Oregon and Washington in cooperation with the USDA, and the work of William J. Spillman, today considered the founding father of agricultural economics.

Spillman was an instructor and researcher at the land-grant college in Oregon from 1889 to 1894, when he was hired to teach at the newly opened Washington Agricultural College and School of Science (now Washington State University), in Pullman, the heart of the Palouse.  Spillman established the wheat breeding program at Pullman, which continues to this day. He worked closely with farmers to learn what they grew, and more importantly, what they needed. Spillman used genetics and research trials to develop varieties of wheat with the characteristic farmers needed. His close relationship with farmers gave him a reputation as a man with the knowledge and desire to assist the farmer, not just a laboratory theorist.

While at Pullman, Spillman independently rediscovered Mendel's Law of Heredity. He has been credited with a major role in the acceptance of Mendel's Law by scientists and agriculturalists. This led to his being an offered a position with USDA in 1902. Assisted by a select crew of researchers and scientists who accompanied him from Pullman to Washington, Spillman led in the effort to place the management of America’s farms on a more scientific basis.

The Experiment: active government versus free market
The importance of these government programs to discover, cultivate, and breed more successful varieties of wheat cannot be overemphasized. At the same time the wheat research programs directed by the land-grant colleges in Oregon and Washington were helping turn the Palouse into a breadbasket, California did virtually nothing. This created what amounted to a laboratory control group to study the actual effects of government research programs, and their absence. The result in California was that the development of wheat growing in the state was left entirely to the working of the free market, as embodied in the efforts of individual farmers. In the absence of government scientists and agronomists providing guidance on wheat growing, California farmers concentrated almost exclusively on introducing improvements and innovations in farm mechanization. Wheat had been the leading staple crop in California in the mid-1800s, but by 1910, wheat growing in California had almost ceased. Olmstead and Rhode write:
The California experience perhaps best exemplifies what would have happened more generally in the absence of biological innovation. After learning to cultivate Sonora and Club wheats in the 1850s to1870s, California grain growers appear to have focused their innovative efforts almost entirely on mechanization. They pioneered the adoption of labor-saving gang plows and combined harvesters but purportedly did little to improve cultural practices, to introduce new varieties, or even to maintain the quality of their seed stock. The result was such sharply declining yields in many areas that wheat, formerly the state's leading staple, ceased to be a paying crop and was virtually abandoned. Acreage had ranged between two and three million during the 1880s and 1890s but dropped to roughly one-half million by 1910. [p40]
The Organic Seed Alliance’s Seed Broadcast blog notes:
By the end of the nineteenth century, a third of USDA’s budget was allocated for germplasm collection and distribution. The department encouraged farmers to trial any crop that seemed economically important to U.S. agriculture, and continued the practice of distributing seed free of charge. And, thanks to the Morrill Act, states had a place in the plant sciences. Land grants [colleges] largely focused on collecting germplasm and conducting research in areas that were not profitable to burgeoning private ventures.
Picture it: USDA freely distributing seed to farmers (at the time, half the population) not so much as a commodity but as an essential natural resource best managed in the hands of the people.
[1] Olmstead, Alan L., and Rhode, Paul W., Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development, Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press, 2008. Chapter 2, “The Red Queen and the Hard Reds: Productivity Growth in American Wheat, 1800-1940.” This chapter is available online as an article by the same name in The Journal 0f Economic History, Volume 62 December 2002, in an Adobe PDF file.

[2] Ibid, p. 44.

[3] "Summary of Public Service" by Thomas Jefferson, sometime after September 2, 1800.

[4] Harold T. Pinkett, "Records of the First Century of Interest of the United States Government in Plant Industries," Agricultural History, 29:30-45. Jan. l955.)

[5] Walter H. Ebling, “Why the Government Entered the Field of Crop Reporting and Forecasting," Journal of Farm Economics, 21:718-734. Nov. 1939.)

[6] Isern, Thomas (2000) “Wheat Explorer the World Over: Mark Carleton of Kansas” Kansas History 23 (Spring–Summer): pp. 12–25,

[7] Dana G. Dalrymple, “Changes in Wheat Varieties and Yields in the United States, 1919-1984,” Agricultural History, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 20-36.

[8] Olmstead and Rhode, pp. 32-34.

[9] Olmstead and Rhode,  p. 38, Table 2.6, “The Northern Shift of the Spring Wheat—Winter Wheat Frontier, 1869—1929.” The table provides only latitude and longitudes of location. How many miles the frontier shifted was determined by entering the latitudes and longitude into Stephen P. Morse’s online calculator.

[10] Ibid., p 39.


  1. America was "built" by wiping out the native inhabitants and native wildlife so that the land could be exploited for profit.
    Yes, this involved a lot of honest hard work and ingenuity. But if we are honest, it did not make the world a better place. Certainly it is not a better place for the native people or the native wildlife.

    1. Yes the natives got run over. Yes, they were murdered and dispossessed. But here's the deal. Every one of these stories has two parts from an economics perspective: 1) Who controls the resources; and 2) what are those in control doing with those resources.

      Around here we pretty much ignore those questions that deal with seizure and plunder (question #1) and concentrate on question #2. This why we exist. We want to discuss those practices that will lead to better, cleaner, more sustainable utilization of the finite resources of planet earth.

      Tony does an incredible job with his HAWB series. They are a lot of work. But he believes, correctly, that one of the most important steps towards a Green future is to understand how we got where we are in the first place.

      Now it is quite obvious that the natives got screwed. It is also obvious that changing the dynamics of native life is a BIG damn question. I have lived my whole life within 25 miles of a reservation and I don't have a clue of how we make good on some of the nastier historical injustices.

      But of one thing I am absolutely certain—the practices of agriculture will NOT be abandoned for political correctness. Most people couldn't live two weeks without agriculture—they just don't know it. And if you are one of those who believes that agriculture did not make the world a better place, please show the rest of us how you intend to prove you can exist without it. I only want the popcorn concession.

  2. This history is informative and useful, but it is based on a fundamentally broken promise: that conservatives actually worry about the size of government as such.

    What conservatives worry about and fight is redistribution from the rich to the poor by government. If the government does that they want a smaller government, because they believe that the simpleton poor don't understand that is a proxy to wanting smaller downwards redistribution.

    When the government redistributes from the poor to the rich, conservatives don't have qualms about the size of government. They have no problems the «deadening hand of government interference in the economy» when that hand redistributes from the "unproductive, exploitative" poor to the "high productivity wealth creator" rich.

    The framing of the debate by conservatives in terms of the size of government is just clever dissembling.

  3. Also, as an aside, whether extensive grain farming in the plains steppes has been a good idea is far from certain. Most of the Great Plains are in effect a desert, and they could be farmed only by using up as fast as possible the local acquifer. Even varieties suited to arid areas can only do so much. That for several decades a desert could sustain farming is due more to the greed of private enterprise for asset stripping the commons and cashing them in for private profit than by group purchase of research into grain varieties.