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Amber waves of grain: Discover America’s farms

TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg shares his guide to visiting the country's breathtaking fields.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Most of us have never been there. Most of us never will go there. And yet, every one of us benefits from the amber waves of grain. And in particular, the family farms of North Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and the Great Plains states.

As we celebrate “America the Beautiful,” we also celebrate these “fly-over” states and the great American farm. Ask American kids where food comes from, and you could easily hear “the market.”

How sad. And so we are reminded that if we don’t understand the process, we can never really appreciate the product, or the history of what built this country.

Let’s start with North Dakota. Ninety percent of the state’s land area is farms and ranches. This state ranks No.1 in the nation in the production of durum wheat and spring wheat (in addition to several other crops). Here you can watch durum wheat being ground into semolina for pasta at one of several mills.

North Dakota sells wheat to about 100 countries worldwide. Italy is the largest buyer for durum — ironically, there is a good chance that some of that great Italian pasta we enjoy originated in North Dakota.

Wheat is planted on an average of 9 million acres, covering a quarter of North Dakota, and it shows up in some surprising places. You’ll find wheat in Twizzlers – yes, Twizzlers. Wheat is also found in:

  • Straw Particle Board (wood) — One-Acre of wheat stubble produces approximately two bales of wheat straw; 64 pounds of wheat straw produce one sheet of strawboard 4’ x 8’1/2” thick. Primary uses of strawboard include “ready to assemble” furniture, flooring a, foundation for lamination and kitchen cabinets
  • Paper — Wheat starch makes paper stronger. Five billion pounds of starch are used in the manufacturing of paper per year in the U.S.
  • Adhesives (many types) — Starch is used as an adhesive on postage stamps and is used to hold the bottom of paper grocery sacks together   
  • Packing peanuts, packaging, foam and insulation
  • Plastic bags, plastic film, eating utensils and molded items (biodegradable)
  • Charcoal
  • Golf tees
  • Roofing and other building materials
  • Cosmetics and pharmaceutical products — Wheat starch could be substituted in significant volumes for current materials if proved commercially viable
  • Hair conditioner, moisturizer, liquid laundry detergents, water-soluble inks
  • Starch — Researchers have found when wheat starch replaces fat in frozen desserts, the desserts not only are lower in fat, but also are creamier and tastier than the same product without wheat starch
  • Milk replacers, egg white substitutes, non-dairy products including whipped toppings, creamers

Now that I've probably told you more than you ever wanted to know about wheat, keep in mind that North Dakotans embrace great folklore and mythology about another more well-known wheat product: bread.

One bread superstition is that if you put a piece of bread in a baby's cradle, it will keep away disease. Superstition says it is bad luck to turn a loaf of bread upside down or cut an unbaked loaf, while legend has it that whoever eats the last piece of bread has to kiss the cook.

And while North Dakota might not be first on your list of must-see destinations, you might want to rethink that list. I strongly suggest a farm tour, or attending some of the festivals and events centered around wheat:

A working herb farm and garden recreation area. There’s a labyrinth that you can stroll, flower and herb gardens, produce parties (dances and jigs, ugliest produce award), and classes like herb blending and gardening. Call 701-351-2520.

Wheat festivals

Bake and Take DayCelebrated annually on the fourth Saturday in March, is a great opportunity for families and service groups to get together in the kitchen and around the oven. Prepare gifts of fresh-baked wheat foods for relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors and the elderly.

Want a great photo opportunity?
North Dakotans consider those waves of grain as their ocean. Take a photo at sunset, or just after sunrise, when dew stands the tips of the wheat heads, or even in mid-day, when golden wheat is set against the backdrop of a blue sky.

There are even wheat-related museums, ranging from the Children’s Museum at Yunker Farm in Fargo to the Northern Crops Institute at North Dakota State University, also in Fargo.

Tourism in Kansas can also focus on wheat. North Dakota ranks second to Kansas in total wheat production. Nearly one-fifth of all wheat grown in the United States is grown in Kansas.  This is why it is called the “Wheat State” and the “Breadbasket of the World.”

Kansas also stores more wheat than any other state and is No. 1 in flour milling in the United States.

Visiting wheat farms
This is a truly off-the-beaten path excursion, as there are no formal wheat farm tours/stays known in Kansas. However, most Kansas wheat farmers are happy to have people visit their farms to experience farming, learn about the equipment and see the fields. To arrange this, contact the Kansas Wheat office (a cooperative between Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers) at 866-75WHEAT.

Organic wheat fields
There are a few organic wheat fields all across the state of Kansas. There are also two flour mills in the state that grind organic wheat kernels into flour, Spring Creek Ranch in Kingman and Heartland Mill in Marienthal

Take a step (or two or three) back in time. The museum features two buildings housing antiques like household items, farm equipment, an old time post office in a country store, tractors, items from an old flour mill laboratory, and “two monster-size stationary steam engines with direct current generators.” Also a one-room schoolhouse and one of the oldest operating sawmills. Regular events include hands-on lessons in ropemaking, cotton spinning and beekeeping; 785-825-8473

National Agriculture Hall of FameFind a collection of 30,000 artifacts and works of art. Check out the Gallery of Rural Art, the National Agricultural Hall of Fame, the Hall of Rural Living, the National Farm Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and the Rural Electric Conference Theater are also located here. The Museum of Farming, the second building in the complex, houses antique farm machinery and implements covering the history of farming. Take a tour of the Farm Town, including a one-room school house, a blacksmith shop, a general store and a poultry hatchery.

Boulevard Brewing Company offers tours every Wednesday and Thursday at 3 p.m., Friday at 1 p.m and 3 p.m. and Saturday at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Brewery tours are free, however, reservations are required. Take a walking tour of the plant, and, of course, sample the different beers;  816-474-7095

Farm Rescue is a North Dakota nonprofit organization that provides planting and harvesting assistance to farm families that are experiencing financial difficulty. This can include an illness in the family, natural disaster, etc. Volunteers help these farmers plant and/or harvest their crops. The program has expanded outside of North Dakota into South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana. If you wish to be a Farm Rescue volunteer, e-mail, 701-526-0947.

Kansas Agritourism
The Kansas Center of Sustainable Agriculture hosts a number of educational farm tours ranging from visits to family farms, learning about growing crops, wildlife management and alternative watering systems that are friendly to the environment. Call (785) 363-7377.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at .