Minnesota farmers harvested about 10 bushels of wheat per acre in 1890. Up to that time feeding more people meant planting more land: by cultivating prairies, clearing forests, or draining wetlands. Today, yields of 60 bushels per acre are not uncommon, thanks largely to land grant university research. Society and scientists now face other land use issues: restoration to prairie or forest, conservation, recreation, or development.
Research to improve wheat started at the University of Minnesota in 1889 when plant breeders and a cereal chemist first evaluated wheat varieties from Minnesota, Hungary and other parts of Europe, Russia, and Canada. After 10 years, their report summarized work with 552 varieties planted on the St. Paul campus:
Plant breeding is in its infancy, and plans for extensive scientific breeding of this crop had to be devised rather than copied . . . Not only yield but the quality of the grain and other characteristics were taken into account in selecting plants to become the mother of varieties.
The first of 35 U of M wheat varieties was released to farmers in 1895.
This era marked the practical beginning of the science of genetics and plant breeding and of worldwide improvements in yield and grain quality. While Swedish monk Gregor Mendel discovered in the 1860s how traits were inherited by plants, the information was not widely known - and certainly not applied - until the 1890s.
The next revolution in plant breeding began with the 1970s discovery of how to view and change a plant's structure at the molecular level, rather than selecting chance variants from among tens of thousands of plant crosses. Still, the goals of wheat improvement are much the same as a century ago: high yield, good baking characteristics, disease resistance, and the ability to stand up until harvested. Growers contribute to the research efforts through the Minnesota Wheat Research and Promotion Council.
The Soo Line railroad, planned and paid for by the grain millers, shipped flower to export markets via Sault Ste.Marie beginning in 1887. Competing lines serving Chicago and Milwaukee tried to divert milling business from Minneapolis - the "Mill City" - by offering cheaper rates. Today, Minnesota is the undisputed center for food and agriculture industries, with over $200 billion of business annually.
In 1881 the Minneapolis Grain Exchange - originally called the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce - was organized to promote fair trade of wheat, corn and oats between growers and millers. Today, options on 20 million bushels a day are handled, making it the largest cash exchange market in the world. Crops grown from the upper Midwest to the Pacific - wheat, barley, oats, durum, rye, sunflower seeds, flax, corn, soybeans, millet, and milo - are traded.
The U of M wheat breeding program has been a cooperative project with USDA-ARS since 1907. These plots are at Morris, next to both U of M and USDA research facilities.
In greenhouse laboratories, plant breeders use 100-year-old techniques to painstakingly fertilize a head of wheat to cross it with a plant possessing other desirable traits.
One plot at a time, small combines harvest, weigh, and determine seed moisture content of potential new wheat varieties at the Northwest Research and Outreach Center, Crookston. Research began here after James J. Hill donated the land to the University in 1895, to encourage development of agriculture on the Great Plains.
U of M Wheat Varieties
|Hard Red Spring Wheat|
|Hard Red Winter Wheat|
|Durum Wheat (for pasta)|
|Soft Red Winter Wheat|
Beginning in 1889, wheat breeders planted hundreds of varieties in small plots on the University's St. Paul campus.
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