Cereal grains are the seeds that come from grasses such as wheat, millet, rice, barley, oats, rye, triticale, sorghum, and maize (corn). About 80 percent of the protein and over 50 percent of the calories consumed by humans and livestock come from cereal grains. The United States is a major supplier of cereal grains to the rest of the world and some impoverished countries depend on gifts of both unmilled and processed grains from America to keep their people from starving.
Most archaeologists and paleo anthropologists agree that agriculture began around 10,000 b.c., when people near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia (later Iraq) settled into villages and began cultivating and breeding wheat. By 8000 b.c., people in central Asia were cultivating millet and rice. By 7000 b.c., people in what is now Greece were cultivating not only wheat but barley
and oats. By 6000 b.c., farmers were milling their cereal grains by hammering them with stone pestles and were toasting the milled grains. By 3000 b.c., people in South America, and probably Central America, too, were cultivating maize. Before 2500 b.c., ancient Egyptians were cultivating wheat and barley and fermenting them to make beer. Hand mills for grinding grain appeared by 1200 b.c., and continued in use in most seventeenth-century American colonies for processing cereal grains.
The Colonial Era: Survival and Beyond
Wheat was the staple of the European diet, especially valued when processed into flour for baking. Therefore, the first European colonists in eastern North America—the Dutch, English, Swedes, and Germans—brought with them wheat. However, they quickly ran into problems. In Virginia, high humidity promoted decay in stored wheat because the husks of wheat, high in fat, went rancid. That poisoned the fall harvest, making it useless for winter food. In New Amsterdam (later New York) and New England, the wheat had difficulty surviving in the cool climate, making the crops unproductive.
The Native Americans in New England were mostly farmers and their most important crop was maize, which came in many varieties and was hardy enough to tolerate cold weather. Using Native American stocks, the colonists took the highest-yielding stalks of maize and bred them in an effort to conserve their good qualities such as many ears per stalk, large kernels, and successful germination in anticipation of growing a better crop the next season. But maize is peculiar in that when it is inbred, the good qualities are always lost, making every successive crop worse than the previous one. In order for maize to remain hardy, its varieties must crossbreed. The failure of wheat and maize crops almost starved all the earliest settlers, but Native Americans shared their harvest, enabling many colonists to survive.
By the early 1700s, the cereal grains rice and oats had been imported from the Old World. The rice could grow on difficult terrain, as in the hilly, rocky region of western Pennsylvania. From 8000 b.c. until the nineteenth century, rice was raised on dry land, not in water-laden paddies. Thus, early American colonists grew a hardy dry land rice that was the ancestor of modern wild rice, beginning in South Carolina in 1695. Oats proved resistant to both drought and cold. The resistance to drought proved vital in the southern colonies, which suffered years-long droughts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the resistance to cold made it almost as valuable as maize and, for a time, more valuable than wheat. During the seventeenth century, colonists had learned to make bread out of maize, and cornbread, or johnny cakes, became an everyday part of the American diet.
In 1769, the steamroller mill was introduced. Water mills and windmills used flowing water or wind to power huge stones to crush cereal grains, but the steamroller mill powered metal mills and could be built almost anywhere, not just by rivers or in windy areas. New immigrants constantly arrived in the colonies and they brought with them their preference for processed wheat; the steamroller mill made it possible to quickly process wheat before it decayed, encouraging the growing of wheat in Pennsylvania.
From the Revolution to 1900: Production Growth and Mechanization
By the end of the colonial era, cereal grains had become cash crops; that is, there was enough left over to sell after the farmers had fed themselves. In the early Republic, the federal and state governments tried to regulate and tax harvests. In the difficult countryside of western Pennsylvania, farmers distilled corn and rye into whiskey, a valuable product that was commercially viable when shipped east to cities. In 1791, however, the federal government placed a high tax on whiskey, forcing western Pennsylvania farmers to either ship their grain to the east through rough hills at high expense or give up making whiskey. They rebelled in 1794 and President George Washington raised and led an army that put down the rebellion.
During the first decade of the nineteenth century, rice became a major export crop for Georgia and South Carolina, and eventually would be a major crop in Louisiana and Texas. Wheat was being grown on flat lands in New York and Pennsylvania. Swedes began settling in the Midwest, bringing with them traditional methods of growing wheat and eventually turning Nebraska into a major wheat producer. In 1874, Russian immigrants brought seeds for Turkey Red Wheat to Kansas; a dwarf wheat, it was drought resistant and became a source for the many varieties of dwarf wheat grown in America.
America's capacity for nurturing cereal grains far outstripped its capacity to harvest it. In 1834 the mechanical revolution in farming began when Cyrus McCormick introduced his mechanical reaper, which allowed two field hands to do the work that had previously taken five to do. The reapers that followed relied on either humans or horses to pull them, but worked well on maize, wheat, and rye. The Great Plains, with their huge flat landscapes, were ideal for the mechanical reaper and its availability encouraged farmers to fill in the Plains with large fields of cereal grains. In the 1830s, Native Americans in the Midwest began cultivating wheat themselves. In 1847, McCormick patented another important farm implement, a disk plow that facilitated the planting of even rows of cereal grasses.
By 1874, mechanical planters had followed the mechanical reapers, allowing farmers to plant in a day what before had taken a week to do. A problem was that to work best, the mechanical planters required moist, plowed land. (This was one among many reasons why the federal government paid for irrigation canals in the Midwest during the 1920s and 1930s.)
In the 1890s, combine harvesters were introduced. At first pulled by teams of horses, these big machines with their turning blades like paddle wheels on steamboats could harvest and bale wheat and sort ears of maize. The result was another 80 percent jump in efficiency over the old mechanical harvesters. Soon, the combine harvesters would be powered by internal combustion engines and a single farm could harvest almost twenty times as much land as could have been harvested at the outset of the nineteenth century. That would make corporate farming possible.
The Twentieth Century and Beyond
In 1941, Dr. W. Henry Sebrell and others persuaded manufacturers of bread and other cereal grain products to mix thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron into their baked goods. The federal government made this mandatory for the duration of World War II, but individual states extended it into the 1950s. Then, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated the enrichment of flour. Incidents of malnutrition decreased for some two decades before a dramatic change in American diet, fad dieting, made malnutrition a growing problem during and after the late 1970s.
In the late 1950s, the federal government began one of what would become several campaigns to improve the way Americans ate, including food "triangles" or "pyramids" that made cereal grains the basis of a healthy diet, after many years of promoting dairy products and high-fat meats such as bacon (for energy). The triangles typically had grains and grain products such as bread at the base of the triangle, with dairy products such as milk and eggs in the middle of the triangle, and meats at the peak, meaning that a diet should consist mostly of grains, less of dairy products, and even less of meats. When eggs fell out of favor, because of their cholesterol, they were moved upwards. At first, fruits and vegetables were lumped in with grains, but were given their own category in the 1960s. By the year 2000, the FDA's pyramid was so confusing that almost no one understood it, although the federal government ran commercials promoting it during children's television shows. Always, cereal grains remained the foundation of the government's recommended diet. The status of cereal grains came under serious challenge in the mid-1980s, and soon after the turn of the twenty-first century some nutritionists were urging that vegetables high in vitamin C and roughage replace cereal grains, which had been linked to tooth decay.
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