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IMPROVEMENT OF WHEAT.
Early Significance.—The culture of wheat has perhaps never been exclusively the subject of individual effort, but has also always been the subject of institutional essay, however vague and remote. Since the latter phase of wheat growing became scientific in the nineteenth century, it has been fraught with a significance of the widest and deepest interest. From an institutional point of view, the growers of wheat are not sufficiently differentiated from the agricultural element of society to warrant a distinctive treatment as a class proper. Only by a statement of such characteristics of the agricultural class as are apropos for a consideration of the institutional development relevant to the culture of wheat can the subject be approached.
By proverbial repute, the tillers of the soil are, comparatively speaking, independent, unprogressive, non-co-operative, and without marked tendency toward organization. Historically, they have been the last great class to be brought under a progressive regime of societal institutions. There are two main causes for this, neither one of which is inherent in the class. The first and fundamental cause is that agriculture is an occupation in nature and conditions such as to require isolation of those engaged in it, with comparatively little division of labor among them. It is an industry as broad as the land upon which it takes place, and admits of no concentration. On the other hand, taking the number of people adequately supported on a given area as a test, the industry is universally developed by a decrease in the size of the holdings of each individual, and by the diversification of labor consequent to this decrease. The second cause, more remote and less important than the first, is that in agriculture the influence of competition is necessarily indirect, and under certain conditions entirely inoperative. In civilized life competition in one form or another has always given a great impetus to organization and co-operation. In modern agriculture, especially if the farmer owns his land, the only point at which the influence of competition can enter is in the sale of farm products.
Other things being equal, a progressive farmer may be able to offer his wheat for sale at a price below the cost of production for the unprogressive grower. While this is competition, its point of incidence is mainly below the line of subsistence for the farmer, and as most farmers are above this line, much of the force of competition is lost. When a government guarantees to an individual the ownership of a certain area of land, he has a monopoly of that area as long as he raises enough produce from it to pay the taxes, or their equivalent, for the governmental guarantee, and to keep himself supplied with the necessaries of life. If he is unprogressive and isolated in his farming, he is quite free to continue so his whole life, and his son and his grandson are just as free to follow in his footsteps.
In the early days the farmer looked to better informed powers than those of human origin for the solution of difficult problems. Wily and insinuating shamans and medicine men astutely took a benevolent interest in him by unfolding, interpreting, and at times even creating, the knowledge and instruction which numerous deities dispensed through these, their agents, for the benefit of agricultural mankind. When to plow, sow, harvest, and when to sell his crop, were thus made manifest to him by the deities whose special business it was to know these things. The gifts of rain and sunshine were in their hands. They alone were the instrumentalities of fructification and bounteous harvests. With the advance of civilization, however, the deities became less communicative, the shaman's magic power waned and became less occult, while his usual recompense grew more burdensome to those who paid it, and his functions became differentiated and were gradually assumed by the botanist, the chemist, the agriculturist, the physicist, the miller, the speculator, the instructor, and above all, the experimenter. As the paternal concern of the gods and medicine men for the farmer became relaxed, little interest was taken in him for centuries, and he has never since been the object of such profound solicitude from any source. In the middle ages and during the conquests of the Goths, Vandals
and other barbarians, agriculture in Europe ebbed to the lowest degree of respectability. It was revived by the Saracens of Spain, and by their successors, the Moors, it was carried to a height perhaps not surpassed in Europe before the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
While Plato, Socrates and Pliny took an interest in agriculture, it is claimed that the oldest of writers on husbandry whose works have survived is Cato, the Roman Censor (234-149 B. C.). In 1757, Home stated that Virgil and Columella were still the best authors on this subject. From the downfall of the Roman democracy until the dawn of English history, little was written on agriculture. At times it was encouraged in a general way and highly honored, as it always has been in China, but usually the farmer was left to work out his own salvation. This he did, and successfully, though it required centuries of time. He no longer relies for information upon the elucidations of subtle shamans revealing the will of elusive, evasive, and ever vanishing gods, creations of the fancy. In nearly every civilized country of the world he is supported by scientifically grounded institutions. As these are practically the scientific foundation of modern wheat raising, especially of some of its most recent and interesting phases, they are considered of sufficient importance here to be taken up briefly.
The National Governments of all of the principal wheat growing countries of the world are factors in an official capacity in the culture of wheat, and at times millions of dollars are expended by a single government in endeavoring to solve some problem of unusual importance. In the United States, Washington in 1796 suggested the establishment of a national board of agriculture. The first appropriation made by Congress for agricultural purposes was in 1839, $1,000. Lincoln approved the act which established our National Department of Agriculture in 1862. Under Cleveland, in 1889, it was raised to an Executive Department.
The development of the department has been surprising, especially in recent years. The thing3 most characteristic of it have been its rapidly increasing magnitude, the study of questions most diversified in interests and far-reaching in importance, and the thorough, effectual and scientific methods employed. As new interests arose, were investigated, and in
creased in importance, they were assigned to a new bureau or division especially created for their research. The distribution of seeds and plants was begun in 1839. Since that time, over 20 divisions and bureaus have been created. The importance that may be attached to the activities of the department is well illustrated by its work with durum wheat. By securing its introduction and its use in manufacturing macaroni in the United States, the department practically established a industry, in addition to extending materially the wheat producing area.
Experiment Stations.—Liebig in Germany, Boussingault in France, and Lawes and Gilbert in England, were the greatest of the pioneers who blazed the path subsequently followed by the experiment station. The organization of scientific experimentation with governmental aid dates from 1851. The American stations are an adaptation of those of Europe to the conditions and requirements of this country, but one of their characteristic features is extensive co-operation. Their establishment naturally followed that of the agricultural colleges. In 1875 the first station in the United States was established at Middletown, Conn., for which the credit is due to Orange Judd, then editor and proprietor of the American Agriculturist. Seventeen stations had been established by 1887, when Congress passed the Hatch act, the great boon for American stations. In 1894, 55 stations were in operation. At some of the stations, especially that of Minnesota, new varieties of wheat and other cereals have been originated which increase the yield several bushels per acre over old varieties under the same conditions, giving to the farmer a pure gain of millions of bushels.
Agricultural Institutions of Learning.—The American agricultural colleges were organized under the land grant act passed in 1862, supplemented by an act of 1890. Under the provisions of these acts 65 institutions are in operation in the several states and territories. The movement for farmers' institutes, originating in various farmers' societies, has now become national in scope, and during the year ended June 30, 1905, institutes were held in nearly all of the states and territories.
1 For a complete account of the department, state experiment stations and agricultural colleges, see Bulletin 112, Office of Experiment Stations, U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Economic Position of Wheat Growers.—The story of the agriculture of the wheat area in the middle west of our country is the oft repeated one of agriculture in a new country, a fact which bespeaks an economic justification. There was but one way in which the western pioneer could draw a draft that would be honored for the cost of buildings, machinery and live stock, and that was to draw it at the expense of the natural fertility of the soil. One-crop wheat farming and neglect of crop rotation and domestic animals resulted. For over half a century, “Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm,”! was a household phrase. The farm having been obtained, it was used and abused in every way that was supposed to yield the largest amount of immediate profit, regardless of all other considerations. In no other section was this so true as in the wheat raising areas. In the meantime, millions of acres of fresh land produced more grain than domestic consumption could utilize, and for years the very existence of the farmer was threatened by 40-cent wheat and 20-cent corn. Lack of capital and the hard conditions of frontier life soon resulted in debt. Often there was not the wherewithal to pay the high interest and to procure the necessaries of life. With the twentieth century came a change, a change of such moment and speed as to be without parallel in the economic history of agriculture. The prosperity of the middle west transformed a million agricultural debtors into financially independent farmers. Free land, free immigration, and free private enterprise in railroad construction were the chief factors that ultimately led, not only to financial independence, but also to a new dignity and to a higher standard of living. With the telephone, the daily mail and newspaper, and means for traveling, a new horizon of comfort surmounts the skyline of the farmers' economic strength. This recent era of rural prosperity augurs well for the nation's future.
Wheat Improvement Proper consists of artificially increasing the natural variations of the wheat plant and its environment. Historically, it is unknown whether the plant or the environment was first the subject of improvement. The subsequent