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Natural North Dakota

The Human Race in 8,000 Words

In a previous column I made the case for what we might call the revenge of the farm boys--how, as a farm boy gone bad into academic life, I have now signed on to write a state-of-the-field history of agriculture on the Great Plains. My students, of course, think I am old enough to write the whole thing from personal memory.

Now the other shoe drops. I have signed a contract with Oxford University Press to deliver a lengthy chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Agricultural History. The last time I did something like this was when I was the only American writing for the Oxford environmental history of New Zealand. With no intent of humor, the editors assigned me the chapter on pests and weeds.

This time I got the ideal draw: a chapter on the history of wheat, global in scope. It is a reach for me, as my home base is the Great Plains of the United States, but I also have done work in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Going back to the origins of wheat in the Fertile Crescent, and spreading out to the wheat belts of Russia, South Africa, Argentina, and so on--there’s the challenge.

Which has to be well met, because it is Oxford, after all, and a landmark work. “Oxford handbooks,” I am admonished by the house editors, “are envisioned to have long shelf lives.” It is another one of those state-of-the-field things, meant to define and shape the subject.

Now, this is not my first rodeo (if I may mix metaphors) in the history of wheat farming. My first two books, way back in the last century, were devoted to the history of custom combining and the history of harvesting and threshing in the age of steam. Nevertheless, to get a handle quickly on the larger subject, I turned to the massive Cyclopedia of American Agriculture, edited by the great agriculturalist of Cornell University, Liberty Hyde Bailey.

The authors of the chapter on wheat in the Cyclopedia (1907) declared that wheat was “a plant of vast economic importance, widely distributed over the civilized world and having a history coincident with that of the human race.”

It is disconcerting thus to learn that I am going to write the history of the civilized world in 8000 words. I need a plan. A plan that will reach back to the emergence of wheat during the Neolithic Revolution some 10,000 years ago but also encompass its current status as one of the big three cereal grains of the world, raised more extensively than any other crop.

Being Lutheran, then, I decided to make three main points. First, wheat was the crop by which agricultural peoples, in the ages of empire, colonized the temperate zones of the earth. My own great-grandparents were participants in this, but they were aspirational kin to wheat-raising settlers around the world.

Second, wheat-farming settlers established wheat belts, the great cereal production centers of the world, with commodity cultures characteristic of the enterprise. There emerged technologies, customs, organizations, and vocabulary that defined work and life. Nothing better symbolizes the idea of a commodity culture than the oldtime threshing ring.

Third, we have to deal with the record of wheat farming in relation to the environment. In recent memory, given the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the United States and the comparable disaster of the 1950s in the Soviet Union, the record is not good. What is needed is a longer look, spanning centuries, explaining why wheat culture persists in what people often, disparagingly, refer to as “marginal lands.”

“A history coincident with that of the human race.” This should be easy, right?