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Russell county wheat farmer, 1912During fall Kansas farmers plant wheat. At that time, all over the state, farmers hitch planters to tractors and carry out the ritual of seeding their wheat fields. In earlier times, Kansas farmers took a different approach.

Until the 1870s the wheat being grown in Kansas was mostly "spring wheat," seeded in the spring and harvested in late summer. The region's hot, dry summers took a toll on this plant, though, and it never prospered. Many early Kansans doubted wheat would ever be a success here.

The Kansas climate actually is best suited to "winter wheat," planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. Winter wheat takes advantage of the fact that most moisture here arrives in winter and early spring. Planted in September and October, it sprouts quickly and then remains dormant until March when it begins a growth spurt and starts to form kernels. In May the plant turns color from green to gold, and the kernels ripen and harden. Harvest is from mid to late June through early July, usually well before the worst summer heat strikes.

One of the first people to experiment with planting winter wheat on a large scale in Kansas was T. C. Henry, who operated a large commercial farm near Abilene in the early 1870s. A real estate promoter, Henry deliberately planted the crop along rail lines to attract new settlers. In August 1874 swarms of grasshoppers attacked the spring wheat and corn well after the winter wheat crop was safely harvested. A long summer drought made matters even worse, and Henry made much of the publicity.

Henry promoted Dickinson County (in north central Kansas) as prime winter wheat country. In the spring 1875 edition of his promotional pamphlet, Henry's Advertiser, he predicted "Winter wheat will doubtless be the great staple of our county," and advised farmers to sow winter wheat early in the fall to establish "a vigorous growth" before the cold arrived. Henry's efforts were so successful that he later boasted, "I spread my winter-wheat propaganda. No evangelist was ever more active." Farmers in the central part of the state began switching to winter wheat, and by the 1880s spring wheat had largely disappeared from the Kansas scene.

Promoters like Henry also played an important role in encouraging farmers to plant wheat instead of corn. The settlers who had poured into Kansas after the Civil War (1861-1865) knew little about the Great Plains climate, its soils, or the best crops for the region. They planted corn because it had thrived in the humid eastern areas they called home. The same 1870s drought and grasshoppers that plagued spring wheat also destroyed the corn crop and made winter wheat even more attractive to farmers looking for new alternatives.

Large colonies of immigrant farmers also helped establish winter wheat as the state's main crop. Many Europeans emigrated to Kansas from areas where they practiced prairie-style agriculture. Their great success with winter wheat convinced other farmers to try it, and by 1888 the Topeka Daily Capital declared, "All parts of Kansas grow good corn but in wheat Kansas can beat the world."

The first time wheat surpassed corn in terms of total production in Kansas was in 1910. Wheat remained king throughout the 20th century, with Kansas producing more wheat than most other foreign countries. Citizens celebrate the nicknames "Wheat State" and "Breadbasket of the World." This success at feeding the planet is a matter of great pride to all Kansans, even those who have never set foot on a farm.

Entry: Wheat

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2009

Date Modified: August 2015

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.