Wheat farming through the ages

Wheat has been and remains one of the most important crops in the world, millions of acres are devoted to wheat production yet few of us realise our long connection to this humble grass…

Einkorn wheat
Einkorn wheat was one of the first species of wheat, pictured above is the domesticated form (source: www.biolib.de)

The beginning of wheat farming:

After the concept of wheat cultivation was introduced around 12,000 years ago, villages and cities grew up in close proximity to the precious wheat fields and grain began trading across the ancient world.

Domestication of wheat

Trial and error led early man to the introduction of different varieties of wheat.  Removal of the grain from the head was discovered as an important part of the process to make flour yet the head had to remain intact long enough for gatherers to harvest it.  In the early days humans selected plants that were easiest to gather and yielded most seeds, replanting from the same stock.  As humans gained an understanding of breeding wheat they were able to try and improve the cross various strains of wheat for hardiness and yield.  Because of all this tinkering, modern wheat is seldom able to generate itself naturally because the grain does not part as easily from the head as wild grasses do.

Early methods of wheat farming

harvest
16th century depiction of harvest by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Harvesters (source: Szilas)
Originally wheat was sown by hand on fertile soil.  Farmers sowed wheat by throwing seed from a hand-held basked into the 20th century, tilling the soil with ploughs pulled by animals only began 3,000 years ago and it wasn’t until the 19th century that the invention of the McCormick reaper in the US began the age of mechanised harvesting.

Labour intensive

Many hours of labour was needed for planting, harvesting and threshing – all by hand.  Early tools included the single and multi-tube seed drill, the plough and the scythe.  The wheat needed to be bundled up and tied in shocks to dry, then transported to the threshing floor where grain was beaten from the head by hand whilst the chaff was swept away.  The grain was then crushed into flour, again by hand.  In later years the grain was ground using large stones in a mill.

The age of machinery

John Deere combine harvester
John Deere combine harvester (source: geography.org.uk)
Horses, mules and oxen were all part of wheat production through the ages.  However the 19th century saw companies such as John Deere, Case, Caterpillar and International Harvester come into play to cater to the vast farming industry, producing combines, tractors, seeders and increasingly large ploughs.

Wheat farming today
Worldwide, wheat production has doubled since 1960, despite wheat being a difficult crop that’s prone to failure from too much rain, too little rain and rain at the wrong times of the year.  Ongoing wheat research and technological developments continue throughout the world with new wheat foods emerging weekly, whilst nutrition research continues to support wheat’s role as a food staple.

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