Hard Gold: Wheat

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The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle

Map, Golden Triangle

On June 4, 1806, as he set out to explore the lower part of the "north fork," Meriwether Lewis made note of the quality of the soil, as usual:

It is astonishing what a quantity of water it takes to saturate the soil of this country, the earth of the plains are now opened in large crivices in many places and yet looks like a rich loam.

Again, on June 7:

Notwithstanding the rain that has now fallen the earth of these bluffs is not wet to a greater debth than 2 inches; in it's present state it is precisely like walking over frozan grownd which is thawed to small debth and slips equally as bad. this clay not only appears to require more water to saturate it as I before observed than any earth I ever observed but when saturated it appears on the other hand to yeald it's moisture with equal difficulty.

Squaring the Golden Triangle

J. Agee photo

Indeed, the silty soil here is so fine that it traps rainwater near the surface, whereas looser, more porous soil would allow it to filter down deeper. Consequently, it is so slippery and sticky when wet that even huge farm machines are immobilized. No wonder it's called gumbo. Lewis was right: It looks pretty good, but it's basically just a means of propping up a wheat stalk so that fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides can be applied. Basic dryland methods such as strip farming, combined with modern precision farming technology, sometimes called prescription farming, made the so-called Golden Triangle one of the richest wheat-producing areas anywhere.

During the 20th century several techniques have evolved for dryland cultivation. One of those is strip farming, in which a field is divided into strips of equal width, with alternate strips permitted to lie fallow—that is, plowed but unseeded—for one or two years in order to store up moisture. Windblown topsoil from the fallow strips collects in the adjacent planted strips. The result is the crisp geometry of fields throughout the northern plains in the western United States and Canada.1 Some of the high-tech tractors used to cultivate these mile-long strips are guided by laser-beam devices, but the experienced farmer does it by eye and by feel.

Precision farming employs global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) to measure yield as a crop is being harvested, locate spots in a field where yield is low, and automatically adjust seeding and fertilizer application rates accordingly the next time the field is planted. Tractors are air-conditioned, dust-proofed, computer-aided offices on wheels that are equal to the challenges of this beautiful but rugged land.

Of course, even precision farming doesn't always insure financial success. In 1996, the price of wheat was around $4 per bushel. In 1998, partly owing to a recession throughout Asia, it dropped to between $1.92 and $2.22 per bushel, while the cost was still $3 per bushel to grow it. That misfortune was compounded by a plague of sawflies that chew through the stems of the plant and cause it to fall over, making the grain more costly to harvest.

"The buffalo commons may be here," says farmer Dean Hellinger. "It is a very serious situation."2

Lewis might have been surprised that this land proved tillable at all, not to mention the mode of agriculture that would be practiced. But he and his contemporaries, and especially his commander-in-chief, Thomas Jefferson, would happily have taken some of the credit for the outcome. The long-sought Northwest Passage, at least as a nearly continuous waterway, proved to be nonexistent, but the market for the Golden Triangle's grain is the same one Jefferson was courting—in modern terms, the Pacific Rim.