Jeff Semler: Wheat, a valuable commodity

July 03, 2012|By JEFF SEMLER |
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

By the time you read this, wheat harvest in the Cumberland Valley will be nearly finished. Washington County, for its efforts, will harvest about 350,000 bushels, ranking it 12th in the state.

If you have ever doubted the significance of wheat and other cereal grains to Washington County, simply drive around and read road signs. You will find Lehman’s Mill, Leiters Mill, Charles Mill and McMahon’s Mill, to name a few.

Many of these mills were situated along streams and creeks, since water powered the mills when they were built. There are even more mills that have disappeared from maps, since they are no longer in use.

What does all this mean? Well, in monetary terms, it amounts to approximately $2.2 million if sold at the current board cash price of $6.27 per bushel.

Wow, that sounds good, but let’s put it in perspective.

The price has nearly doubled in the past few years after decades of prices lagging way behind in input cost hikes, such as fuel and fertilizer. Land rent prices have also gone up $20 per acre over the last three years. So, by and large, profits have not kept pace.

Let’s take a deeper look at wheat. I am not going to assume you know anything, so please bear with me. Wheat is a grass that is cultivated worldwide. Globally, it is the most important human food grain and ranks second in total production as a cereal crop behind maize (corn). Wheat grain is a staple food used to make flour for leavened, flat and steamed breads, cookies, cakes, pasta and noodles.

Probably the first cereal to be domesticated, wheat originated in southwest Asia in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. The earliest archaeological evidence for wheat cultivation comes from the Levant, Syria and Turkey.

Wheat was brought here by the early settlers, who were predominantly of German descent. Washington County can boast that Fulcaster, a popular variety of wheat that was widely planted up until 1974, was bred and patented by local farmer S. M. Schindel in 1886.

As I told you before, grain is measured in bushels. What is a bushel? Well, a bushel of wheat contains approximately 1 million individual kernels. And a modern combine can harvest 1,000 bushels of wheat per hour. Also, one bushel of wheat yields enough flour for 73, one-pound loaves of white bread. Lastly, there is approximately 5 cents worth of wheat in each loaf of bread sold.

So as you travel down the highways and byways of our area, you will know a little more about the harvest you see around you. While you are at it, please be patient — the combine driver in front of you is going as fast as he can.

You might not be able to go as fast as you would like, but you will be able to enjoy your next sandwich.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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