There are many reasons to love heritage foods, including health and flavor. But another fascinating aspect of these foods is their history.
And what better heritage food to celebrate than Turkey Red winter wheat, the grain that made Kansas the Wheat State?
The history of Turkey Red begins in the country of Turkey, not surprisingly. By the early 1800s, it appears to have spread northward into Crimea.
Turkey Red owes its presence in America to the Mennonites. These were originally Germans who had moved to Crimea, by then annexed by Russia, in the 1700s to avoid being drafted into the German military. A change in Russian policy, however, led the Mennonites to move once again in the 1870s to a country where they would be allowed to pursue a pacifist course. Kansas railroad officials actively assisted the Mennonites in purchasing land and moving their belongings, hoping to benefit from the shipping this agriculture-oriented group would need.
When the Mennonites came to America, they brought with them seeds to start their farms. Although the Mennonites raised several types of wheat in Russia, one variety that many immigrants brought was Turkey Red.
Shaping the State
Attempts had been made to raise wheat in Kansas before the Mennonites arrived, starting at the Shawnee Methodist Mission in 1839. However, these attempts involved spring wheat, which was not well suited to the climate. The wheat was planted in the spring, as its name suggests. In theory, it was to be harvested in late summer. In practice, it rarely lived that long, usually withering early due to heat and drought.
Turkey Red, on the other hand, was planted in the fall, lay dormant over the winter, and was harvested in late spring or early summer. In short order, it proved that it could thrive in the Great Plains climate. It had a complex root system that could scavenge nutrients from even poor soils. Furthermore, it resisted many of the diseases that other varieties succumbed to.
Whatever other varieties of wheat the Mennonites might have brought and tried, Turkey Red was the one that survived. It was also the one that Kansans of all backgrounds quickly adopted. By the 1900s, the state of Kansas produced more wheat than most foreign countries.
Turkey Red Today
Turkey Red is no longer the top variety of wheat grown in Kansas, modern hybrids having become the norm in the 1940s because of their high yields and their ability to absorb fertilizer without lodging over. Many of these hybrids trace back to Turkey Red.
However, Turkey Red in its pure form has become a relatively rare variety. For a long time it was preserved mainly by hobby farmers.
Fortunately, there is an increasing number of heritage wheat growers, particularly in Kansas, who are dedicated to preserving and milling this historic variety.
Proponents of Turkey Red wheat believe that it is superior to hybrid wheat in several ways:
- Better drought tolerance.
- Stronger but fresher flavor.
- Finer, lighter texture.
- More workable dough.
- Higher protein content.
- Better digestibility.
- Reduced risk of gluten intolerance symptoms.
Turkey Red Wheat
Text of and directions to a historical marker near Walton, KS, telling the story of Turkey Red Wheat.