Summer is in full swing, and so is the harvest of winter wheat in the United States. The harvest begins in the south, with combines gliding across the golden wheat fields stretching from Georgia, through Texas, to California in May. By early June, the harvest migrates north, to a narrow belt spanning the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and southern Kansas. By the end of July, the last wheat stands of Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana are cleared, processed and stored in the region’s grain bins.
Harvesting wheat carries significance as both an end and a beginning. On the one hand, it is the culmination of the labor performed the previous September and October, as the wheat was carefully planted in rows and cared for with irrigation an nutrient supports. After a long winter, spring finds the wheat growing tall and green, as farmers carefully follow weather patterns, hoping their young crops can withstand wind and rain throughout the season. By summer the fields turn from a rich green to a golden amber, and when the hydration levels are just right, they are ready for harvest. On the other hand, the harvest is an opportunity to observe and appreciate the bounty of such labor and worry, and begins the process of cleaning, milling, and ultimately baking throughout the year to come.
In late March, the USDA and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued a news release (.pdf) setting the projected 2011 winter wheat harvest in North Carolina to be 700,000 acres, a forty percent increase from 2010, when 500,000 acres were harvested. This is in contrast to projected global output, which, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (.pdf) is expected to be lowered by more than 5.2 million tons for 2011/2012, largely due to drought in parts of Europe and excessive flooding in parts of Canada. But even with this reduction globally, the harvest remains at 664.3 million tons, the third highest harvest on record.
The growing number of wheat fields sprouting along the eastern United States certainly means an increased level of food sovereignty for the region, and initiatives to keep this grain off the commodity markets in Chicago, Minnesota, and Kansas City may provide protections against the volatile grain prices in the coming years. But on a much smaller level, activities on North Carolina farms are changing. More and more farmers there are finding themselves gathering wheat instead of more traditional commodity crops and goods, such as corn, tobacco, and milk.
Next week we hope to be in the western part of the state where John McEntire, a newbie to wheat but certainly not to farming, plans to harvest his second year of Turkey Red wheat and Abruzzi rye on his farm in Old Fort. But across the state, on the coast, the summer wheat harvest has been a tradition in the Haines family on Looking Back Farm for more than ten years, as they lead the charge in supporting local millers, including the historic Lindley Mills and the upstart Carolina Ground with local wheat for local consumption.
The Wheat Movie team was there to capture this year’s harvest at Looking Back Farm, and we were pleasantly surprised to witness quite the family affair. To see more images from the harvest, take a look at the photos on our Facebook page.