Turkey red hard winter wheat once covered more than 90% of wheat acreage in the Great Plains. Its proliferation was due, in large part, to the efforts of a group of 26 Nebraska farmers.
In the fall of 1910, in order to get an extensive test among farmers in the state, a letter was sent to a selected list of reliable farmers. The letter asked them plant 8 acres of the particular wheat variety.
Researchers asked that it be grown in a large field next to other wheat for comparison. Twenty-six farmers across 20 counties agreed to plant plots that year.
The farmers involved were: Carl Rohde of Columbus in Platte County, H.W. Ehlers of Roca and George M. Brum of Cheney in Lancaster County, W.F. Johnson of Harvard and A.L. Lamp of Inland in Clay County, S.M. Arnold of Aurora and William Stelk of Phillips in Hamilton County, John H. Grimm of Blair in Washington County, Herman Monich of Hooper and Dan V. Stephens of Fremont in Dodge County, Will Lonergan of and H.P. Kuhl both of Florence in Douglas County, R. Takken of Thurston in Thurston County, A. Schlickbernd of Beemer in Cuming County, Ben Asmus of Dorchester in Saline County, John E. Erickson of Funk in Phelps County, J.C. Day of Superior in Nuckolls County, Clarence H. Wiese of Alda in Hall County, F.A. Swanson of Stromsburg in Polk County, Ernest Woodard of Hebron in Thayer County, and Joseph S. Smith of Syracuse in Otoe County.
Testing the variety in fields across the state was the culmination of about eight years of selective wheat breeding trials by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Agricultural Experiment Station, according to the published report. Testing was conducted under the direction of professor Edward Gerrard Montgomery and Dr. Thomas Lyttleton Lyon and assisted by Leslie Lewis Zook of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and professors Martin Nelson, Erwin Hopt, Theodore A. Kiesselbach and Martin Simon Jussel. In 1911, the experiment station conducted its definitive testing.
Montgomery’s report disclosed that three strains (Nos. 287, 48 and 425) were used. Eleven farmers planted No. 287; seven farmers planted No. 48; and three farmers planted No. 425.
The results showed an average yield of 21.9 bushels. This was an average increase of 4 bushels per acre. No. 48 proved to be a very satisfactory yielder (23.3 bushels average) in contrast, but was reported somewhat lighter in color in comparison. Five of the experimenters were unable to report due to unfavorable weather conditions.
“The success of winter wheat is due almost entirely to the introduction of the Turkey red type,” Montgomery reported. “It is doubtful if any other winter wheat which is now in cultivation would have proved so valuable in this state.”
Turkey red arrived in the U.S. in the early 1870s, brought to Kansas by Mennonite immigrants from Russia, the part now known as Ukraine. There are several strains of Turkey red under different names, such as Malakoff, Kharkov, Crimean and Beloglina.
It thrived in Kansas. It did so well, in fact, that it pushed forward the advancement of milling technology. The introduction of Turkey red began in southeastern Nebraska after 1890 and gradually spread as far north as the Platte River.
Nebraska used to be the second largest producer of winter wheat in the U.S. From 1900 to 1909, the state averaged a total annual yield of 43,378,151 bushels of wheat, according to University of Nebraska records.
Now, the deposed king of winter wheat varieties has been exiled to hobby farms as a heritage grain.
“Heritage grain means that it predates modern breeding,” said Darrold Glanville of Sunrise Flour Mill in North Branch, Minnesota. “Currently, Turkey wheat is grown in a few small plots by hobby growers but the variety has virtually disappeared from the agricultural and gastronomical landscape.”
University of Nebraska Extension educator Nathan Mueller is searching for descendants of Nebraska farmers that took part in variety testing.
The Midwest Messenger was able to locate a descendant of one farmer, thanks to the efforts of Matt Steinhausen of the Roca Tavern. Don Ehlers is the grandson of H.W. Ehlers. He remembers his grandfather as a staunch advocate of working with the University of Nebraska.
“He was adamant about getting the newest and best seeds from the university,” Ehlers said.
Don was the fourth generation of Ehlers to work that land. It had originally been purchased in 1881 by his great-grandfather, Fredrick Ehlers. While he is retired, Don still lives on the family farm.
Jon Burleson can be reached at email@example.com.