No place for shallow roots
It happened at the first-ever Kansas Wheat Commission sponsored National Festival of Breads competition when Lois Keller from Ellis, Kan., answered my question. What was my question you might ask? How interesting of a crop is wheat, when planted in the fall? It produces a tremendous amount of beef as they graze it; the plants lay dormant through the winter and, in the spring, come back to life and generate another product for human consumption in the wheat heads. Lois responded by reminding me that wheat when stressed, as it is during grazing, will grow a deeper root and consequently be ready to produce wheat once spring arrives.
Wow! It hit me hard. We all know that a plant will send roots as deep as it thinks it needs to in order to find moisture, but are we as human beings any different? Hasn't that been the backbone of life in farm country since this nation was founded? Our roots go deep in the community. Those of us who grew up in multigenerational families have certainly planted our roots a little deeper and, when stressful times come, we have one another to rely on. It seems to be very difficult to get those roots below some of the vastness of the concrete in the rest of our nation.
On the subject of all things wheat, there was a tremendous event in Wichita recently that truly did connect the farm to fork. The Kansas Wheat Commission had over 500 entries in the National Festival of Breads competition, which they whittled down to the eight finalists who came to the wheat belt from as far away as Maine. The first day was spent at Cow Town in Wichita, just to give everyone a vivid reminder of what life was really like in the pioneering days. Remember, even in 1930, it took 20 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat while today less than one labor hour is required. That is much easier to visualize when you look at those old shucks and threshing machines.
On the second day, we followed the path of the wheat. Steve Jacobs was kind enough to host the group and even fire up the combine and cut some wheat in his field. Although the conditions were soggy and less than ideal, the group thought it was a wonderful day. One baking contestant even welled up in tears on me when she was telling how moving it was to be there when a real, true wheat harvest started, and how incredible the combine and farmers all were to this regular user of their end product.
Off we went to the elevator to see how the collection and storage of wheat actually works before we went to the flour mill and watched as the endosperm was actually separated from the wheat mids. As a side note, for the couple of vegetarians that were in the group, I did get the plant manager to mention the vital importance of selling wheat mids to the cattle feeding industry. He told them they would not be able to afford to operate without selling that by-product of the harvest and was thankful for cattle. I must admit that it was my first time through a flour mill. While we spend a lot of time in farm country complaining about the disconnect between urban and rural neighbors, I wonder how many farmers have actually followed their farm products beyond the first collection point. Not enough, I am sure, and this was motivation for me to follow all of our commodities from farm to fork in the near future and I hope you will do the same.
The flour mill did generate an interesting conversation, though, about the percentage of the farmer's share of wheat in a loaf of bread. Honestly, it is quite disappointing. In recent years, the farmer has never even received a meager 10 percent of the selling price of a loaf of bread. In fact, during the 2008 food crisis hype, the highest amount earned by the farmer was 9 percent of the selling price, according to the American Farm Bureau. Here are some numbers that North Dakota Wheat Commission put out last year.
More than 80 percent of the retail cost of a loaf of bread or a box of pasta is attributed to transportation, processing, marketing, packaging and labor costs. These are the primary factors currently increasing consumer costs. To put this in its proper perspective, a family consuming one loaf of bread and one box of pasta per week would incur an additional annual outlay of roughly $20 per year due to the increased cost of wheat and durum in the finished product.
Finally, my hat is off to everyone who was involved with the National Festival of Breads competition. It was fun but, most importantly, it was tremendously educational. Sincere congratulations to Dianna Wara from Washington, Ill., who was selected as the winner with her Tomato Basil Garlic Pane Bianco. I had a great time, learned a lot, met new wonderful people from every walk of life but, most importantly, planted my roots a little deeper in this great American rural life.
Editor's note: Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.FacesOfAg.com, or e-mail Trent at firstname.lastname@example.org.