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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Turkey Red, a Heritage Wheat

Turkey Red (c)

    The latest issue of Smithsonian Magazine (Dec 2011) contains an excellent discussion of heritage wheat varietals and reincorporating them back into local flavors and regional economies.
    In An Amber Wave, Jerry Adler notes, “… there’s something about wheat.  It speaks to the American soul like no other crop, even much more valuable ones, which is most of them.  Find a penny from before 1959, and what you see on the reverse are two iconic stems of wheat, not a bunch of arugula,” (Adler, p 60).
    It seems that wheat is the newest heritage seed craze popular with backyard gardeners, hobby farmers and even more established farmsteads seeking to diversify or to preserve a regional heritage.
    One of the most interesting tidbits comes from Adler’s interview with Abdullah Jaradat of the USDA indicating that wheat is one of humanity’s most diverse crops, growing in eco-zones as diverse as the equatorial highlands to Alaska.  Jaradat pinpoints two moments of “natural hybridization” that formed the current plant – first between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, and secondly, in Iran near the Caspian Sea some 6,000 to 7,000 years ago.  In the article, Jaradat explains that wheat is comprised of a genome that is the longest yet decoded – including the human genome.  Part of the complexity is that those ancient hybridizations combined three distinct plants into our modern crop source, (Adler, p 64).
    As for historical varietals, Adler really mentions only the Acadian strain grown on the American East Coast around 1920 – and reintroduced by a heritage grower interviewed by Adler.  Yet, as my friend Jim Edminster has pointed out in a letter to the magazine, Adler barely skirts by and misses one of the most famous heritage wheat varietals in America – the famous Turkey Red Winter Wheat brought to Kansas by émigré Mennonite farmers from Ukraine to the plains of Kansas, starting the crop revolution that resulted in the Great Plains becoming the bread basket of the world. 
    Adler interviews Jeff Borchardt, president and CEO of the Kansas City Board of Trade, responsible for exporting some 800 million bushels of hard red winter wheat around the world.  Borchardt claims little knowledge of heritage grains – yet much of his product is probably in descent of that famous gift from Russia’s Mennonites to the New World.  Prior to the arrival of the Russländer Mennonites in 1874, the major cereal farm crop had been corn – the arrival of the Mennonites in Goessel (officially credited with the first planting of Turkey Red on the Great Plains) and other rural communities literally changed the farm economy and landscape of much of North America.
(c) Kansas Historical Society
    According to the Kansas State Historical Society, “These immigrants did not come empty-handed.  Family lore states that Mennonite families loaded kitchen crocks and traveling trunks with Turkey Red wheat seed before leaving Russia.  Arriving in Kansas in 1874, they planted their first crop in the rich farm lands around Goessel.  Although corn was the primary grain grown in Kansas at the time, Turkey Red wheat proved well-suited to the Great Plains.  The wheat berry contained more protein (producing the best flour), demonstrated more resistance to disease, and survived the harsh winter conditions following fall planting,” (cited below).
    In 1974, Goessel celebrated their centennial heritage by selling bottles of Turkey Red Winter seed.
    Slow Food USA, a food quality organization, identifies Turkey Red as Triticum aestivum – a tall, winter hardy cultivar grown in the Great Plains (cited below).  According to their website, Turkey Red has “a unique, rich, and complex flavor and excellent baking qualities,” (ibid).  According to Adler, such characteristics might create unique tastes or regional specialties reflecting the ground from which they spring (the wine quality of terroir).  Adler reports that at the Kneading Conference West, George DePasquale of Essential Banking Company had been given a special varietal to bake with resulting in loaves that were “the best in 35 years of baking … nice controlled acid flavors [with a] strong hit of spice, strong hit of chocolate,” (Adler, p 65).  While Slow Food USA was not quite as enthusiastic in their descriptions of bread baked with Turkey Red, they do indicate that “[Turkey Red] wheat has excellent flavor, good protein quantity and quality, and has proven longevity and resilience,” (Slow Food USA citation below).
    Edminster, a retired educator, indicates that in Kansas, the story is that prior to immigration, the Russian Mennonite families sat down and sorted the kernels of Turkey Red by hand, choosing only the plumpest, most uniform seeds to make the journey with them. 
    Some skeptics doubt the basis of these legends – questioning the importance of wheat as a staple crop in Ukraine or that sufficient quantities of seed could have been transported to generate crops.
C. R. Voth threshing crew in Marion County, Kansas (c) Kansas Hist Society
    We do know that the Mennonites of Molotschna were expert cultivators of seed plants – adapting many specialty crops to the Molotschna area – most notably the famous mulberry plants.  As Adler indicates, wheat had been grown in the Ukrainian – Kuban region for thousands of years.  More importantly, Adler records the experience of Tevis Robertson-Goldberg in the Berkshires.  When Robertson-Goldberg determined to reintroduce the Acadia varietal to his farm from seed the USDA had received from Russia, he said the seed bank provides growers only about five grams of seed or 100 kernels.  After his first season, the 100 kernels yielded one pound of seed which became ten pounds the second year resulting in harvestable crops each year thereafter.  Recalling that Mennonite families often immigrated with wooden wagon boxes that had been nailed shut with the wheels removed, there is plenty of room for small crops to have become shortly established.
    Russian Mennonite gardeners can again grow ornamental stands of this historic and ethnically important wheat varietal in their gardens or even window boxes.  Bakers can obtain flour or wheat berries from companies such as The Heritage Grain and Seed Company in Lawrence, Kansas.  This is an important story and cultural heritage for us to preserve – what a better way to share your family history or the story of your own personal faith to future generations than by reincorporating this essential plant back into our everyday lifestyles and landscapes.
The Heritage Grain and Seed Company
Thom Leonard
1505 E. 1584 Road
Lawrence, KS 66046

  • Adler, Jerry, "An Amber Wave," Smithsonian, V 42 no 8, Dec 2011, Washington, DC, p 58-65.
  • Edminster, Jr., James, personal conversations, Chicago, IL, 13 Dec 2011.
  • Kansas Historical Society, "Cool Things Turkey Red Wheat," Topeka, KS,, downloaded 14 Dec 2011.
  • Slow Food USA, "Turkey Hard Red Winter Wheat," Ark of Taste,, downloaded 14 Dec 2011.

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