Tales Out of School

More Disastrous Than Fire or Flood:
Wheat Rust Epidemics

By Anthony Westby

Historically, in all the great grain-producing regions, such as the Great Plains, the “Rust” epidemics were more disastrous than fire or flood, and in the majority of cases the produce lost was the principle staple foodstuff; the biological fuel of western civilization; wheat. Although, many rust infections have been observed and recorded by scientists, none have had such an impact as the parasitic species Puccinia graminis var. tritici (or the Black Rust). It was this particular variety that in 1896, Mark Alfred Carleton, demonstrated to have specific physiological affinity for wheat and many of the native barleys of the United States. After massive crop devastations were experienced worldwide at the beginning of the 1890s, the arduous task of combating this pathogenic fungus was pursued by scientists around the globe. Investigating the infectious nature of the Black Rust would prove to be the greatest single undertaking in the history of applied plant pathology. Not on paper, or by laboratory research alone, but in practice and over vast expanses of steppes, patunas and especially prairies.

Much of the investigation into the rust epidemic was spear headed here in our native prairies. A dominate figure in this movement was Dr. Carleton, who was employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1892-1925. Dr. Carleton began his cereal investigation in 1894 and toured through the wheat-growing states to assess the damage brought upon by the spread of the infectious fungus. As he passed through the states of the Great Plainshe found Rust to be so prevalent in some states, that the cultivation of wheat was being abandoned. From his keen observations and meticulous records, Carleton concluded that it was in fact the Black Rust (P. graminis) that caused the most damage to wheat crops, and consequentially where research should be focused. Carleton also noted the oddity in the wide range of hosts Black Rust seemed to exhibit. It was remarkable that a single parasitic fungus should be adapted by nature to exploit so many host plants. Carleton found this phenomenon so remarkable that he felt it merited investigation. Specifically, as it was possible to see by examining specimens with the naked eye or under the microscope, the fungi causing the Black stem Rust  on the wheat, oat, rye, barley, and various wild grasses did appear to be pretty much the same. Though were they, in fact, the same? For four years Carleton addressed this question by growing the various cereals in pots in a greenhouse and tried to infect the wheat plants with spores from Rust on oats. The attempt failed, the spores from the Rust on the oats would not infect wheat, barley, or rye. In fact, he found the Rust on one cereal would not infect the others, with one exception of wheat rust infecting barley. Therefore, it was determined that there were several P. graminis, each varying physiologically from one another; giving rise to distinct varieties of the infectious fungus. This determination became a cornerstone in the world effort to eradicate Black Rust from our commercial crops.

The combination of Carleton’s findings and other scientists’ research boosted the momentum of the global attack on this infectious fungus. The battle to detain and detour this parasite from our crops is historically and currently of great significance; being fundamental to our ability to sustain our global population. Wheat is one of the world’s most important economical crops, because of its principle role in the diet of the majority. Thus, the goals of many modern wheat breeders are to maintain a resistant genetic combination, in collaboration with the genetics that produce large desirable yields. Pursuing these goals has proven to be a constant race, in which efficient and educated breeding techniques have developed to stay ahead of the concurrent changing rate of the P. gaminis population. Therefore, the Rust epidemic, and all its implications have exposed our biological role on the prairie as members of its natural ecology, competing with other native organisms for the nutrients we both need to complete the life cycle. The story of the wheat rust is one of humbling perspectives.

Anthony Westby is a senior Biology major at Emporia State University. He plans on pursuing a graduate degree in Botany. Anthony is a student of Dr. Tom Eddy.

Wheat Classes used in the United States

Wheat classes used in the United States
  • Durum — Very hard, translucent, light colored grain used to make semolina flour for pasta.
  • Hard Red Spring — Hard, brownish, high protein wheat used for bread and hard baked goods. Bread Flour and high gluten flours are commonly made from hard red spring wheat. It is primarily traded at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange.
  • Hard Red Winter — Hard, brownish, mellow high protein wheat used for bread, hard baked goods and as an adjunct in other flours to increase protein in pastry flour for pie crusts. Some brands of unbleached all-purpose flours are commonly made from hard red winter wheat alone. It is primarily traded by the Kansas City Board of Trade.
  • Soft Red Winter — Soft, low protein wheat used for cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, and muffins. Cake flour, pastry flour, and some self-rising flours with baking powder and salt added for example, are made from soft red winter wheat. It is primarily traded by the Chicago Board of Trade.
  • Hard White — Hard, light colored, opaque, chalky, medium protein wheat planted in dry, temperate areas. Used for bread and brewing.
  • Soft White — Soft, light colored, very low protein wheat grown in temperate moist areas. Used for pie crusts and pastry. Pastry flour, for example, is sometimes made from soft white winter wheat.



Books for Young Readers

Pancakes, Pancakes!

By Eric Carle, Eric Carle (Illustrator) Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, January 2005 Ages: 3 to 6 years ISBN: 9780689878336

Annotation: By cutting and grinding the wheat for flour, Jack starts from scratch to help make his breakfast. Modern-day pancake mix holds little charm compared to starting from scratch, and young readers will find their mouths watering, and will wish that they, too, could have real pancakes, pancakes!

Little Red Hen and the Ear of Wheat

By Mary Finch, Elisabeth Bell (Illustrator) Publisher: Barefoot Books, April 2001 Ages: 1 to 6 years ISBN: 9781841482347

Annotation: Hard work pays off for the little red heroine of this traditional tale. Youngsters will discover the importance of helping others while learning how one ear of wheat can become a warm and delicious loaf of bread.

Fall Harvest

By Gail Saunders-Smith Publisher: Coughlan Publishing, September 1997 Ages: 5 to 6 years ISBN: 9781560655879

Annotation: Simple text and photographs describe how several different crops, including pumpkins, apples, wheat, corn, and potatoes, are harvested by humans and by machine.

Follow That Crop: From the Farmer’s Field to Our Grocery Store

By Scott R. Welvaert Publisher: Lake Street Publishers, September 2003 Ages: 4 to 8 years ISBN: 978158417942

Annotation: From the series “From Here to There.”

A Prairie Year

By Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet, Yvette Moore (Illustrator) Publisher: Tundra, October 1994 Ages: 6 to 10 years ISBN: 9780887763342

Annotation: The year begins with hockey, icefishing, and a snowmobile race. Spring brings renewal: the arrival of piglets, baby chicks in the farm kitchen; and outside, the fields are seeded. In summer, there’s a dinosaur park to be visited; a calf is groomed for the fair and wheat tested between grandfather’s fingers. In fall, a farm auction becomes a party, trick-or-treating is done by pick-up truck, and Clydesdales are driven by teams competing at the world’s great farm fair.

Thrashin’ Time: Harvest Days in the Dakotas

By David L. Weitzman Publisher: Godine, David R., June 1999 Ages: all ISBN: 9781567921106

Annotation: Thrashin’ Time takes us back to autumn days in North Dakota in 1912, when farmers worked the land with sturdy draft horses and a new-fangled machine called the steam traction engine.

Winter Wheat

By Brenda Z. Guiberson, Megan Lloyd (Illustrator) Publisher: Henry Holt & Company, Inc., August 1995 Ages: 5 to 8 years ISBN: 9780805015829

Annotation: Through simple, evocative language and detailed watercolor illustrations, this book shows how farmers and wildlife can share the same piece of land by following the cycle of winter wheat.

Farms Feed the World

By Lee Sullivan Hill Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group, December 1997 Ages: 5 to 8 years ISBN: 9781575050751

Annotation: A simple introduction to the beauty and variety of farms from a wheat field in Montana to the harvesting of seaweed from the ocean.

Great-Grandma Tells of Threshing Day

By Verda Cross, Kathleen Tucker (Editor), Gail Owens (Illustrator) Publisher: Albert Whitman, September 1992 Ages: 6 to 11 years ISBN: 9780807530429

Annotation: A little girl and her brother help out on threshing day in the early 1900s as the neighbor men arrive to thresh the family’s wheat and bring it to the mill, and the neighbor women assist with the huge midday meal.

Six Crows

By Leo Lionni Publisher: Random House Children’s Books, January 1989 Ages: 5 to 7 years ISBN: 9780394995724

Annotation: An owl helps a farmer and some crows reach a compromise over the rights to the wheat crop.

Cyrus McCormick: And the Mechanical Reaper

By Lisa A. Aldrich Publisher: Morgan Reynolds, Inc., July 2002 Ages: Young Adult ISBN: 9781883846916

Annotation: Profiles Cyrus Hall McCormick, whose hatred of farm work led him to invent a machine which made it much quicker and easier to harvest wheat, and which turned him into a multi-millionaire businessman.


Wolfgang Puck’s Whole Wheat Pizza Dough


1 pkg yeast

1/4 cup warm water, plus 1 cup cool water

1 tablespoon honey

3 3/4 cups whole wheat flower

1 tablespoon olive oil

pinch salt


Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Add the honey and let sit for 5 minutes, until foamy. Put the flour in a food processor. Mix the 1 cup cool water with the olive oil and salt. With the motor running, pour the olive oil mixture and

the yeast slowly in through the feed tube. Process until the dough forms a ball on the blade. Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl, cover and let rise until double in bulk. Punch down the dough and knead it on a lightly floured surface for 1 minute. Divide the dough into 4 equal portions and roll them into tight balls. Place on a tray, cover with a damp towel and let rest for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

Roll or stretch each bowl of dough into a 7 to 8-inch circle. Place the circles, 1 at a time, on a wooden peel or on a baking sheet and build the pizza as desired.


Did You Know…

Did you know that 2006 was the first year in which the world consumed more wheat than the world produced? The gap continues to widen as the demand for wheat and wheat products increases beyond the production.

~ The Economist, 2007



Resource Websites



This site is co-sponsored by the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. The site features a live ticker of the Kansas City Board of Trade wheat futures. In addition to many facts about wheat production specific to Kansas, the site also features excellent information about wheat as a commodity and the economics of trade. A photo album, recipes and an a list of upcoming events are also included on the site. An excellent collection of teaching materials can also be found on this site for preschool through secondary students.



Recipes and a “grain-talk blog” highlight this website. It also features a kids section with interactive farming games, quizzes, and cooking ideas. A complete chart of nutritional values for wheat and wheat products is also available.



This site is economic based and serves the wheat grower. Tracking farm legislation through both national and local levels of government are the main focus of the site. Additional features include a weekly Wheat Digest of articles related to the industry, a U.S. Farm Policy guide, an opinion blog, and a list contact information for all congress members.

Top Ten Wheat Producers



According to the KSU Wheat Page, their mission is to bring together KSU electronic information about wheat into one place and to provide links to other useful information about wheat in Kansas, the USA, and the world. The pages are especially good for interactive ideas with school-age kids. The site features a “watch-the-wheat grow” section where students not only watch month-by­month progress of the wheat crop, but also learn facts about vulnerabilities and needs of the crop during all stages. Additionally, kids can play on the virtual agronomy software titled “Kids Field Day.”

This site is co-sponsored by the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. The site features a live ticker of the Kansas City Board of Trade wheat futures. In addition to many facts about wheat production specific to Kansas, the site also features excellent information about wheat as a commodity and the economics of trade. A photo album, recipes and an a list of upcoming events are also included on the site. An excellent collection of teaching materials can also be found on this site for preschool through secondary students.



This site features some amazing art from woven wheat fibers. Forms range from hats to wall hangings and from woven jewelry to sculpture. A list of wheat weavers, tools, supplies, and ideas to get started are included, as well.


Bring It Home…

Bring It Home is designed to provide thought-provoking questions and ideas for your students in order to bring the Tales subject matter closer to home. Questions and ideas can be starting points for research activities, invitations for guest speakers, field trips or week-long themes in the classroom, just to name a few.

  1. What would happen if your town ran out of wheat? Have the students keep a daily log of all the food they eat that contains wheat. At the end of the week put together a master list of foods “no longer available.”
  2. Invite the local extension agents to class for a show and tell of wheat varieties. Extension agents can also tell students about the primary crop in your county, percentage of farmers and farm ground and about agricultural related industries in your community.  Or invite a local farmer to class or better yet, take a field trip to a local wheat farm. The extension office will be able to put you in touch with area farmers willing to host students for a field trip.
  3. Invite a local artist to lead your students in wheat straw weaving projects or have students design and decorate their own crop art patterns. The Wheat Mania website has several examples of crop art found yearly in Kansas.

Tales Out of School, a newsletter for elementary and middle school teachers, is published twice a year and is available free of charge to interested persons. A variety of subjects related to teaching Kansas history and the Great Plains appear in Tales. Each issue emphasizes a single topic and includes a resource of websites, books, and teaching tools to assist in the classroom. Readers are encouraged to submit items to the newsletter that they believe will be useful to fellow teachers. Past issues of Tales are available on the website at www.emporia.edu/cgps. If you would like to have your name added to the mailing list or would like to send suggestions please email us at cgps@emporia.edu.