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Dry Farming Wheat -- Pete

Guest Column by GeoT
Dateline: 04/27/02

The term "Dry Farming" sounds something like an oxymoron. In extremely dry areas, farming without the aid of irrigation is, of course, impossible. But in areas of Steppe climate, with 15 to 20 inches of precipitation per year, with a precipitation maximum in spring or early summer, farming can be done successfully using dry farming methods.

This method involves a technique used to build reserves of soil moisture, and, over a year's time, when combined with the normal precipitation as the crop grows, is adequate for production. This method involves what is called the 'summer fallowing' of parts of the fields. The fields are divided into wide strips and crops are planted on every other strip. The land between the cultivated bands is called the summer fallow. The purpose of leaving this soil idle is to allow moisture to accumulate in the subsoil where it will be available to help grow next year's crop ­ in effect, using two years of moisture for a single crop. Year to year, the pattern of crop and fallow reverses. Sort of like a Venetian blind being pulled one way and then the other. Snow is an important source of moisture, and a slow snowmelt is a very beneficial event. Winds that blow snow off the fields or into drifts and low areas are not desired. This is true for adjoining grazing lands too.

Dry farmed areas normally have very large farms, often of thousands of acres. Only half the land is actually in production in any given year. Yields per acre are only moderate which also explains the huge size. The crop is often harvested by custom combine crews, which can place several machines in the fields to accomplish the harvest rapidly. Storms and hail damage at this time can be devastating.

Crops raised in dry farmed areas must either be drought resistant or drought evasive. Drought evasive means that the crop goes through its vegetative cycle early when the moisture is available, and later, as the crop matures, the lack of rainfall is actually a benefit to drying and harvesting.

Wheat is such a crop.

Wheat is a cereal plant of the Gramineae (grass) family. In dry farming wheat, producers are working with nature since the growing conditions for wheat are similar to the natural short grass vegetation of the steppe lands. Wheat is grown in many other climate zones too ­ it is certainly not restricted to dry-land areas.

Wheat was one of the first grains to be domesticated. Cultivation began in the Neolithic period some 10,000 years ago. A time called the Agricultural Revolution. Wheat for bread was grown in the Nile Valley 7,000 years ago. It was later cultivated in the Indus and Euphrates valleys, China, and England. The Mediterranean area appears to be its place of origin. The English introduced wheat to Virginia in the 1600s.

For its early growth wheat prefers cool weather. Modern wheat varieties are usually classified as winter wheat or spring wheat. Winter wheat is planted in milder areas where the threat of winterkill is reduced. It is planted in the fall and develops crowns and roots before freezing weather begins. With the arrival of the first warm days of spring, the wheat is ready to begin growing again. Winter wheat is harvested is the late spring or early summer. 75% of all wheat grown in the United States is winter wheat. In the more severe winter areas of the northern US, winterkill is too much of a risk for many wheat varieties, so planting takes place in the spring. This wheat is called Spring wheat. The Winter Wheat Belt centers on Kansas, the Spring Wheat Belt on North Dakota. There is an intermixing of Winter and Spring wheat depending on the varieties being grown, so there is no highly defined boundary between the Belts.

How the wheat will be used depends on the gluten content. Gluten is a mixture of proteins that compose strong flexible molecules. Glutens give flour its chewiness and trap gases during the baking process allowing the dough to rise. Different types of wheat have varying ratios of gluten-to-starch (called hardness) and this is what determines the use of the flour.

Generally, the wheat of the Great Plains and western states are of the hard variety, rich in gluten, and used for bread. Durum is the hardest wheat of all and is used in pastas. North Dakota is the major producer of durum. Soft wheat is rich in starch and used for cakes, pastries and breakfast foods. They are produced in the Soft Wheat Belt located generally in the eastern and Midwestern part of the US and the eastern parts of Oregon and Washington. Wheat is also used in the manufacture of beer and whiskey. It is sometimes used as a livestock feed, depending on the market prices of other feed grains.

Kansas leads all states in the production of wheat, and North Dakota is normally second. About half the wheat grown in the United States is exported.

So, when enjoying breads, and bagels, we'll thank the Great Plains producers. For the pastas, the good people of North Dakota. And for the cakes, pastries, crackers and Wheaties, -- that could be the eastern producers or those in the Pacific Northwest.

Lots of types of wheat to meet, Pete!

And when traveling through the rural wheat states, we'll look for those sometimes-gigantic 'Prairie Skyscapers' - and if told to turn right at the elevator - we won't look for a lift inside a building!


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GeoT is a long-time high school geography teacher from Illinois. In addition to geography, he enjoys railroads and model railroads, old Oldsmobiles, and gardening.

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