THE wheat dreamer was Mark Carlton, who came to Cloud County, Kansas with his family when he was 10. It was 1876, just a year before black stem rust took the state's wheat harvest. The 'black stem rust' disaster deeply impressed Carlton. It was the beginning of a lifetime of asking questions and finding answers: what caused the rust, what could prevent it? Carlton entered Kansas Agriculture College in Manhattan, specializing in botany and pursuing research in the college's experiment station. Wichita University employed him as a professor of natural history upon graduation, but he soon resigned in order to continue research at the experiment station.
His discovery that rust infection was transmitted between plants within the same species but not to other species earned him national attention, and he was hired as cerealist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the age of 28. Carlton matched his propensity for research with energy and inventiveness. During his Washington appointment, Carlton continued his studies, using his new position to import thousands of varieties from throughout the world for further experiments. His goal was to find a wheat plant that resisted rust, drought, and frost--the most common enemies of Kansas farmers on the plains. Carlton concluded that the best wheat plants were arriving from Russia and requested that his superiors allow him to travel there to continue his pursuit of the ideal wheat.
Washington immediately denied his request. He overwhelmed their objections with maps, facts, and figures, but they observed he didn't he even speak Russian. He bought grammar books, learned the language, and in 1898 found himself on a journey that took him to St. Petersburg, Odessa, and Kirghiz on the Siberian border. Kirghiz produced a bread called "kalach" and when Carlton took a bite of out it, he said it was the best bread he ever tasted. He returned to Russia in 1900 and discovered Kharkov wheat on the steppes of Starobyelsk.
Like Johnny Appleseed, Carlton returned from both trips with pockets of full of these new strains of wheat -- specifically hard wheat -- a winter wheat ideal for bread and macaroni. So devoted was he to the successful introduction of this wheat to a country (and state) not entirely enamored (or even familiar) with macaroni he made it a main course in his diet. Carlton met initial resistance from both farmers and millers, but by 1914 more than half the wheat crop of Kansas was the Kharkov variety. A dreamer with energy and purpose, Carlton was key in leading Kansas in its role of 'breadbasket' of the nation.
But his eventful life was not without a final, fatal twist. Careless about personal finances, Carlton borrowed money from friends and acquaintances alike. This included a loan from a man of the opposite political party and when his superiors learned of it, Carlton was dismissed from his post with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In an effort to pay back his debts, he went to South America, going from job to job, earning enough to repay a portion of the money he owed before he died in Peru of malaria in 1925. But the real debt is owed to him by the state and the farmers he supported with a lifetime of research to find the perfect wheat, immune from cold, safe from rust, and impervious to drought. (Interestingly enough, the debt was returned by the farmers to Russia during the crop disaster there -- do you remember the highly controversial wheat donation to Russia?)