Wheat Fields in California by Ella M. Sexton
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
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
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.