Pullman

Agricultural Researchers Unite! Landrace Grains and the 2018 National Biennial Conference of the U. S. Agricultural Information Network

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Agricultural scholars and librarians from across the country converged on Pullman, Washington, last month for the National Biennal Conference of the U. S. Agricultural Information Network. I had been asked last year to serve as guest speaker for one of the sessions and was pleased to accept as a token of my gratitude for the organization’s valued help in completing my book, Harvest Heritage: Agricultural Origins and Heirloom Crops of the Pacific Northwest (WSU Press, 2013). As part of my research for that study I spent an entire day at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland, during a visit to Washington, D.C. I remember well walking in stifling summer heat from the end of Metro line to this impressive repository of USDA materials and other records on farm history. My trek was well worth it and led me to an array of early 19th century sources on landrace grains and other crops of early America.

Dr. Paul Wester’s Presentation on the National Agricultural Library

Dr. Paul Wester’s Presentation on the National Agricultural Library

My remarks featured a summary of that research and description of the heritage grains we have been raising at Palouse Colony Farm. Many members of the audience were from eastern states so had special interest in learning about the original Colonial White Lammas (Virginia May) wheat and Scots Bere barley that we have restored to production. Demonstration plots can now be seen at the National Arboretum, Colonial Williamsburg’s Great Hopes Plantation, and Mt. Vernon Living History Farm.

My talk at the WSU conference was preceded by an address from Dr. Paul Wester, Director of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at the National Agricultural Library. He presented an fascinating overview of the USDA’s history including information on its establishment by President Lincoln at a time when he certainly had other things on his mind with the Civil War raging. (The Pullman conference convened on the 156th anniversary of the department’s founding.)

Morrill Hall, Washington State College, Pullman (1895), Named for Justin S. Morrill, Father of the 1862 Land Grant College Act, Drawing by Rob Smith (2012)

Morrill Hall, Washington State College, Pullman (1895), Named for Justin S. Morrill, Father of the 1862 Land Grant College Act, Drawing by Rob Smith (2012)

Dr. Wester shared that the library’s strategic goals are four-fold: 1) To ensure efficient delivery of USDA programs; 2) feed and cloth the world; 3) strengthen stewardship of private lands through teaching and research; and 4) provide access to a nutritious and secure food supply. We met together after our presentations and he expressed special interest in emerging markets for landrace grains. He also offered to help with transportation to the library on my next visit to D.C.! My thanks to conference organizer Lara Cummings and WSU’s Dawn Butler for facilitating my participation in this informative gathering.

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 1)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.


For many years I kept a copy of Zane Grey’s novel, The Desert of Wheat (1919), on my bookshelf. I confess it was mostly there because the title had piqued my hope that the famed Western author might have once turned his attention away from Southwestern cowboys to farmers in the Northwest. A few pages into the book confirmed its setting to be on the Columbia Plateau. But encounters on its opening pages with “motor-cars” and labor organizers led me to set it aside in favor of what I thought might be more interesting reads. Only in recent weeks did I return to the book after realizing that Grey had composed it amidst the convolutions of American involvement in World War one hundred years ago. So I pulled it off the shelf again and this time found myself immersed transported through compelling prose to a remarkable time that I found had high relevance to many issues of our present day.

Best-selling author and conservationist Zane Grey (1872-1939) is considered the father of the modern Western novel. He wrote eighty books with nine selling over 100,000 copies in their year of initial publication, including the quintessential Western classic Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) which became a million-seller. Even today sales of his many works typically reach 500,000 copies annually. Grey’s novels and some 300 short stories were known for idealizing the American frontier spirit with archetypal characters inhabiting moral landscapes who exemplified the Code of the West—integrity, friendship, loyalty. British poet John Masefield and Ernest Hemingway considered his writing praiseworthy and others compared allegorical storylines laden with struggle and mystery to the ancient Beowulf saga and Star Wars science fiction trilogy. Though some critics found Grey’s plots to be formulaic, several of his works ventured beyond worlds inhabited by cowboys and desperados to explore contemporary issues, and human influence on landscapes.

Zane Grey’s  The Desert of Wheat  first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of  The Country Gentleman

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of The Country Gentleman

Grey and his wife, Dolly, journeyed from their home in Pennsylvania to the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1917 and traveled through eastern Washington in July. That same tumultuous month Alexander Kerensky was named premier of the Russian provisional government after revolutionaries toppled the Romanov monarchy, and a major German World War I counter-offensive commenced on the Eastern Front in Galicia. Grey closely followed world events through newspaper reports sought to incorporate their impact on American national life into his writing. He had been encouraged by The Country Gentleman editor Benton Currie to compose an agrarian-themed story for serialization the following year.

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

While attending a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in July at Spokane’s opulent Davenport Hotel, Grey and A. Duncan Dunn, regent of the state’s agricultural school in Pullman, discussed the plight of the region’s farmers since Northwest grain markets and labor unrest seemed highly related to unfolding international events. Inspired in part by events in Russia, the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) sought to organize itinerant harvest laborers throughout the wheatlands in order to hold out for raises from two to three dollars for a customary ten-hour day of intense physical labor tending the annual threshing operations. The Wobblies were strongly opposed by farmers on economic grounds, and many throughout the country considered their socialist leanings a threat the moral and political order. The inland Pacific Northwest was also heavily populated by immigrant farmers of German ancestry from central Europe and Russia. Grey’s story would also explore the tensions within families and communities created by complex relationships between heritage and nationalism.

Zane Grey,  The Desert of Wheat  Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Zane Grey, The Desert of Wheat Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Grey’s “The Desert of Wheat” would first appear in several installments of The Country Gentleman in the spring of 1918, and Harper’s published the first of numerous printings in book form in 1919.  His earlier works had been known for vivid descriptions of action and environment, as well as respectful inclusion of Native Americans and minority cultures. This new work appealed to both reviewers and the general public, and opened with lines inspired by his summertime journey across the Columbia Plateau’s vast farming district:  “Late in June the vast northwestern desert of wheat began to take on a tinge of gold, lending an austere beauty to that endless, rolling, smooth world of treeless hills…. The beauty of them was austere, as if the hand of man had been held back from making green his home site, as if the immensity of the task had left no time for youth and freshness. Years, long years, were there in the round-hilled, many-furrowed gray old earth.”

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,”  Country Gentleman Magazine  (May 14, 1918)

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,” Country Gentleman Magazine (May 14, 1918)

Through dialogue about Bluestem and Turkey Red wheats and rattling threshers under the hot harvest sun, the story lauds the hard work and struggles of taciturn Kurt Dorn, son of an elderly German immigrant farmer. Young Dorn faces drought, blight, and the elements in order to support his father, and experiences World War I prejudice and rural labor strife. Although Grey’s characters are not typically prone to mystical reflection, Dorn and protagonist love interest, Lenore Anderson, ponder the significance of change in their own relationship, his  enlistment and brutal experience of European battle, and deeper meanings of wartime damage to culture and conviction. As do few other books in Grey’s considerable corpus, The Desert of Wheat exemplifies his lifelong compulsion to express “Love of life, love of youth, [and] love of beauty.” Dorn and Anderson’s dialogue further attest to the wastefulness of war and Grey’s own ambivalence over conceptions of patriotism and heroism. Literary historian Christine Bold characterizes Lenore Anderson as the personification of humanity’s spiritual core—a “Western version of Ceres,” and like waving heads of grain frequently described she symbolizes renewal amidst an odyssey of life, loss, and land.