Early History

Wheat undoubtedly developed from the accidental crossbreeding of certain grasses and by mutation (a spontaneous change by which the offspring differs from the parents). It was cultivated long before the beginning of written history. Archeologists have found evidence that wheat was grown by Stone Age people in western Asia Minor at least 10,000 years ago. Bread wheat was grown in the same locality and in the Nile Valley as early as 4,000 years ago.

Wheat was brought to the Western Hemisphere early in the 16th century. It was cultivated by American colonists on the Atlantic coast in the 17th century, but was not as well adapted to this region as was corn. Pioneers moving west took wheat with them.

Modern Wheat Farming

began in the United States in the 19th century. In 1830, Cyrus McCormick invented a reaping machine that helped revolutionize the wheat industry. Threshing and binding machines were also invented during the 19th century. Improved transportationnotably railways and steamshipsgreatly broadened the market for wheat from the central United States and Canada. New varieties of wheat from other countries helped to expand the wheat belts of the Western Hemisphere.

Mechanization of the wheat industry continued in the 1900's as the combine became the major harvesting and threshing equipment. Hybrids were developed that could resist drought, cold, and disease, and that had superior milling and baking qualities.

After World War I

Until 1914, the world wheat market remained fairly steady. During the war, wheat production in exporting countries was expanded. After the war, European nations began more extensive wheat farming, leaving traditional exporting countries with surpluses. This cycle was repeated with World War II.

In the decades after the war, the largest wheat-exporting nations were the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina. They sold to major markets such as Western Europe, China and Japan, and India and Pakistan. Russia was once an exporter of wheat, but the country became a major importer in the 1960's, when its agricultural system proved incapable of supporting a growing population. France, which formerly produced only enough to meet its own needs, joined the ranks of the exporting nations.

In the early 1960's, new hybrids of high-yield wheat were developed in Mexico. Their introduction into other parts of the world made some nations self-sufficient wheat producers and other nations less dependent on imports. In the early 1990's, scientists succeeded for the first time in using techniques of genetic engineering to produce desirable characteristics in wheat.