Wheat Fields in California by Ella M. Sexton

1903

The Spanish Padres, as the Mission priests were called, taught the Indians to plough and seed with wheat the lands belonging to the church or Mission. They used a simple wooden plough, which oxen pulled. When the warm brown earth was turned up, the Indians broke the clods by dragging great tree branches over them. After the fall rains they scattered tiny wheat kernels and covered them snugly for their nap in the dark ground.

More rain fell, and soon the soaked seeds waked, and started in slender green shoots to find the sunshine, and day by day the stalks grew stronger and the fields greener. Higher and ever higher sprang the wheat, till summer winds set the tall grain waving in a sea of green billows. Have you ever watched the wind blow across a wheat-field? Over and over the long rollers bend the tops of the grain, that rise as the breeze goes on and bend low again at the next breath of wind.

When the hot sun had ripened the grain, and all round the white-walled, red-roofed Mission the fields stretched golden and ready for harvest, the Indians cut the wheat, and scattering the bundles over a spot of hard ground, drove oxen round and round on the sheaves till the wheat was threshed out from the straw. Then Indian women winnowed out the chaff and dirt by tossing the grain up in the wind, or from basket to basket, till in this slow way the yellow kernels were made clean and ready to grind.

A curious mill, called an arrastra, ground the grain between two heavy stones. A wooden beam was fastened to the upper stone, and oxen or a mule hitched to this beam turned the stone as they walked round. The first flour-mill worked by water was put up at San Gabriel Mission, and it was thought a wonderful thing indeed.

Even in those early days California wheat was known to be excellent, and many ships came on the South Sea, as they then called the Pacific Ocean, to load with grain for Mexico or Boston or England. Since that time our state has fed countless people, and over a million acres of valley and hill lands are green and golden every year with food for the world. To Europe, to the swarming people of China, Japan, and India, to South Africa and Australia, our grain is carried in great ships and steamers, and hungry nations in many lands look to us for bread.

For a long time after the Mission days, all the grain had to be hauled to the rivers or sea-coast for shipping. Then the overland railroad was finished, and within the next fifteen years an additional two thousand miles of railways were built in California, and nearly every mile opened up rich wheat land that had never been cultivated. Soon great wheat ranches stretched far over the dry, hot valley plains.

The ground is ploughed and seeded after November rains, and all winter the tender blades of grain grow greener and stronger day by day March and April rains strengthen the crop wonderfully, and June and July bring the harvest-time. As no rain falls then, the ripe wheat stands in the field till cut, and afterward in sacks without harm. All the work except ploughing is done by machinery, and this makes the wheat cost less to raise, since a machine does the work of many men and the expense of running it is small.

Some of the ranches have three or four thousand acres in wheat, and it may interest you to know how such large farms are managed. The ploughing is done by a gang-plough, as it is called, which has four steel ploughshares that turn up the ground ten inches deep. Eight horses draw this, and as a seeder is fastened to the plough, and back of the plough a harrow, the horses plough, seed, harrow, and cover up the grain at one time. There the seed-wheat lies tucked up in its warm brown bed till rain and sunshine call out the tiny green spears, and coax them higher and stronger, and the hot sun of June and July ripens the precious grain.

Then a great machine called a "header and thresher" is driven into the field and sweeps through miles and miles of bending grain, cutting swaths as wide as a street, and harvesting, threshing, and leaving a long trail of sacked wheat ready to ship on the cars. Thirty-six horses draw the header, and five or six men are needed to attend to this giant, who bites off the grain, shakes out the kernels, throws them into sacks and sews them up, all in one breath, as you might say. The harvesters work from daylight to dusk, and three-fourths of our wheat crop is gathered in this way.

Much golden straw is left, besides that which the "headers" burn as fuel, and farmers stack this straw for cattle to nibble at. The stock feed in the stubble fields, too, and strange visitors also come to these ranches to pick up the scattered grains of wheat. These strangers are wild white geese, in such large flocks that when feeding they look like snow patches on the ground. They eat so much that often they cannot fly and may be knocked over with clubs. In the spring these geese must be driven away by watchmen with shot-guns to keep them from pulling up the young grain.

The largest single wheat-field in California is on the banks of the San Joaquin River, in Madera County. This covers twenty-five thousand acres and is almost as flat as a floor. It is nearly a perfect square in shape, and each side of the square is a little over six miles long. There are no roads through this solid stretch of grain. Two hundred men, a thousand horses, and many big machines are needed to work this wheat-field.

Some of the big harvesters that cut and thresh the wheat are drawn by a traction-engine instead of horses. In running a fifty-horse-power engine high-priced coal had to be burnt but now the coal grates are replaced by petroleum burners, and crude coal-oil is the cheap fuel. This does not make sparks to set the fields on fire like burning coal or straw and so is safer to use.

On large ranches wheat can be grown for less than a cent a pound, while it has brought two cents or double the money when sold. But there are not always good crops, as the grain needs plenty of moisture in the spring when rains are uncertain.

The wheat crop of the state has fallen off of late to less than half the yield of earlier years, but the deep, rich valley soil still grows grain enough to feed hungry people in Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as in our own Union. Great quantities are taken in large four-masted ships to Liverpool, England, and there made into American flour. Our own flour-mills turn out thousands of barrels of flour, and this travels far, too. The first thing picked up in Manila after Admiral Dewey's victory was a flour sack with a California mill mark.

It would need a long, long story to tell how far from home and into what strange places the yellow kernels of California wheat sometimes travel, or to picture the odd people who depend upon us for food.