If you got out of bed this morning, chances are you’ve encountered wheat multiple times already, whether in the cereal you had for breakfast, the soap you used in the shower or the make-up you applied to your face.
Wheat is one of the three most-consumed grains in the world and the third-largest crop grown in Nebraska, bringing more than $414 million to the state’s economy in 2012 alone.
“Wheat is hugely important to Nebraska and to the world,” says Caroline Brauer, ag promotion coordinator for the Nebraska Wheat Board. “It plays an important role in providing dietary fiber and grains we need. Wheat is found in many of the foods we eat, from breads, cereals and pasta to pizza dough and hamburger buns.”
Besides dietary fiber, wheat is a good source of energy-providing carbohydrates, major B vitamins such as thiamin and folic acid, and iron. Wheat is not only used in food – it is also found in everyday products such as glue, paper, cosmetics, soaps and pet food.
The United States is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, and according to the United States Department of Agriculture, Nebraska has about 8,000 of America’s wheat farms. About half of wheat produced in the United States is used domestically, and the other half is exported internationally to countries including Mexico, Nigeria, Taiwan, Japan and China.
The process of getting wheat from the fields onto grocery store shelves involves many people. But it all starts with the farmer. Rick Larson and his wife Diane raise 800 acres of wheat on a farm his grandfather bought in the 1940s. They are located in Banner County, a county that is on the western-most edge of the state in the Panhandle.
“We plant hard red winter wheat in the fall, and it comes up and reproduces in the spring,” Larson says. “It is harvested in early summer, usually July.”
Brauer says there are two classes of wheat grown in the state. The hard red winter wheat that Larson plants is the most common type grown in Nebraska. It is generally used for the flour that goes into loaf bread, hamburger buns and other foods. Hard white winter wheat also is grown in Nebraska, but to a much lesser extent because it needs a more arid climate and therefore can only be grown in the western part of the state. Brauer says it is growing in popularity because it can be milled into a whole wheat flour that retains more “whole grain” characteristics, while providing the color, texture and taste of a refined white flour. It is popular for use in Asian noodles and flat breads.
While some Nebraska farmers harvest their wheat using their own equipment, Larson says he hires crews called custom harvesters to do it for him. These crews generally start their harvesting in Texas, move to Oklahoma and continue north, harvesting for farmers as wheat matures in Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and up into Canada.
“Americans today are three or four generations removed from the farm, and people don’t realize the technologies and costs involved in the food we produce,” says Larson. “Most people associate wheat going into flour to make bread, but tortillas are a huge market for us today, and so are noodles.”
Once the grain is harvested, farmers generally deliver it to a grain elevator. The grain elevator tests the wheat for various characteristics, such as how dry it is and how much protein is in it. The wheat then is shipped to a mill, usually by train. (Wheat that is to be exported internationally is shipped by rail to the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Northwest.) Mills convert the grain into flour that is then used by commercial and artisan bakers, and general consumers, to create a wide variety of foods. Manufacturers use the by-products of flour production to make other everyday items.
The majority of Nebraska’s wheat is raised along the southern border and in the western part of the state, where it is more arid. It is a drought-resistant crop that can grow well with limited rainfall or irrigation.
Larson says the wheat industry today is creating a safe, wholesome product using science-based technology.
“Our seed selection has improved, resulting in higher yields and better milling quality,” he says. “We use less tillage, more crop rotations and we’re making our inputs work more efficiently and effectively.”
For Larson, raising wheat and farming in general is more than a job – it’s a way of life.
“Agriculture is a very blessed occupation,” he says. “We get to plant seeds and watch the miracle of food being produced. There’s nothing else like it.”