The year is 1874. The time is September.
The year is 1874. The time is September. A group of Russian-German immigrants have just arrived in Central Kansas. They came to escape religious persecution. Their tax- exempt status in Russia had been rescinded. Their language and cultural norms had increasingly been subjected to Russian conformity.
At the same time a group of Volga-Germans arrived in Western Kansas.
They arrived in this part of Kansas for similar reasons. In addition, both groups had faced their imminent induction into the Russian army. There was one other thing these two groups had in common. They brought with them a type of wheat known as Turkey Red. Of course, as they say, the rest is history.
It took a generation to transform Kansas into the “breadbasket of the United States.” I have had the privilege of teaching in both communities. One day the topic came up as to which group came to Kansas first. My students in Grinnell claimed their Catholic ancestors were first. I had been taught that my Mennonite ancestors in McPherson County brought the first Turkey Red wheat to Kansas.
After some research, the students in Western Kansas were correct since they arrived in June and my ancestors came in September. While it may only be a matter of trivial importance, another fact also drew my attention. During the summer of 1874, the worst grasshopper plague in our state history occurred.
There is no record anyone from either group left their new home and went back to Russia.
Nevertheless, the Kansas wheat harvest was born in difficulty. Kansas farmers throughout history have had to deal with inclement weather, high costs of land and equipment, and low prices at the elevator. The frustration of the producer has reached epic proportions at times. While farmers have often lacked the power to demand more income for their grain, these same people have appealed to leaders, political parties, and government in general to make their economic concerns known.
Agrarian revolt became a periodic occurrence in Kansas throughout our history. In fact, the leaders of this revolt were so frustrated with both the Republican and Democratic Parties they formed their own third political party called the Populist Party. Their platform included better wages for farmers and government control of the railroads, banks, and grain elevators. The platform also included a graduated income tax, a cap on interest rates, and a series of government owned grain warehouses. All these proposals seem somewhat socialistic, don’t they?
Farming today is much different than it was in those early days. Modern technology has taken over the small family farm. Huge equipment becomes the norm on most wheat fields I see in McPherson County. Large acreage is the only way a farmer can turn a profit. The small farmer struggles to survive.
While modern farming has changed dramatically, some of the old problems are still with us. The weather is always a challenge. This year farmers faced drought, hail, incessant rain, and long periods of frigid temperatures. Weeds, disease, and unwanted insects are often a problem.
Through it all, farming remains the most productive and efficient part of our American economy. When we drive to Manhattan, a sign always sticks out to me. It says that a Kansas farmer raises enough food for himself and 128 other people. To me, that says a lot. That says the rest of us can become doctors, lawyers, teachers, philosophers and even newspaper columnists.
Civilizations have been founded on many things. The most important, however, is a strong enough agricultural base to feed its people. Without this base, the arts, music, literature, and even democracy itself would not flourish. All the great civilizations of the world were founded on a strong agricultural foundation.
As society becomes increasingly urbanized, the farmer’s voice becomes harder and harder to hear. I was raised on a small farm where my father was a teacher as well as a farmer. We did not depend solely on farming for our income.
My hat goes off to those farmers who depend entirely on farming for their only income. I worry about who will speak for them. I also worry about the future generations who will lose total contact with the land. For them the devastating problems of raising a wheat crop will be only distant memories. How will we keep this rich tradition alive in the generations ahead? As we eat from the most bountiful food supply in the history of the world, may we never forget the courage and fortitude of those early immigrants who made this possible.
Dwight Goering is a retired teacher living in Moundridge.