Home -> Other California Books -> History of California -> Chapter 13 - To All that Sow the Time of Harvest Should be Given

Previous Page Home
Up One Level
Next Page

Chapter XIII

To All that Sow the Time of Harvest Should be Given

In all but savage countries, wheat is the most important product of the soil, A large proportion of human beings living on the earth to-day are so poverty-stricken as to make the question of food a matter of anxiety for every day. The prayer for bread unites more voices than any other.

The padres who settled California understood this well. A number of bushels of wheat, snugly incased in leather sacks, formed a precious part of the cargo of the San Carlos, that stout Spanish vessel which in 1769 brought the first settlers to California. This seed-wheat was divided among the early missions and as soon as possible was planted - not with success at first. For a time the padres made little progress in crop raising. They had to learn by their failures. In San Diego the first wheat planted was sown in the river bottom and the seed was carried entirely away by the rising of the stream in the winter; and the next year, which proved to be a dry one, it was planted so far from the water that it was almost all destroyed by drought. At San Gabriel the first crop was drowned out, but the second, planted on the plain where it could be irrigated, was a success. San Gabriel was chief among the missions for wheat raising, and was called the "mother of agriculture."

Grain planting and harvesting, in the days of the padres, differed widely from the methods which prevail to-day. Then the ground was plowed once or twice, but in what manner? A yoke of oxen, guided by an Indian, dragged a plow with an iron point made by an Indian blacksmith. If iron could not be obtained, the point was of oak. Seed, which had been first soaked in lye, was sown by hand, broadcast, and harrowed in with branches of trees. The grain was cut by the Indians with knives and sickles. It was afterward placed on the hardened floor of a circular corral made for the purpose, and into it was turned a band of horses which were urged to a run by the shouts and whips of the Indian vaqueros. After running one way they were frightened into turning and going the other. In this manner the grain was trampled out of the husks. It was freed from the chaff by being thrown high in the air by the shovelful, when the wind was blowing hard enough to carry away the light straw.

Next, the grain was washed and dried, then ground, generally between two stones bolted together. A pole for a handle was also fastened by the bolt, and the stone was turned, sometimes by mules, sometimes by Indians. La Perouse, the French scientist who visited the coast in 1786 and gave to the padres of San Carlos a handmill for grinding grain, said that it would enable four Indian women to do the work of a hundred by the old way. Before many years the padres at San Gabriel built a water mill of stone and adobe which ground grain in large quantities, but not with entire success, until Chapman, the first American in that region, gave them his assistance to perfect the machinery. This interesting building has been restored by Mr. H. E. Huntington and is an object of interest to those who visit San Gabriel.

In 1815 the missions raised enough wheat to supply the whole population, and there was even an attempt to ship grain to Mexico. This was a failure, but a little grain was sold to the Russians at Fort Ross. At the time of the change in the mission settlements, when the padres were sent away, all agriculture declined. During the Mexican War and when the crowd of gold seekers came, there was very little grain or flour to be had. Some of the gold hunters, who had been farmers in the East, failing to find a fortune in the river sands, and seeing the lack of food stuffs, went back to their old occupation. They put in crops of wheat and barley along the waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, and were amazed at the fertility of the soil and the success of their venture.

From this time the cultivation of wheat increased rapidly. In 1899 was harvested the largest crop recorded. After that there was a decline in wheat raising, because many farmers planted much of their grain lands to fruit for canning and drying. To California inventors is due the credit of substituting steam for hand labor in planting and harvesting grain.

Let us look at the busy scene on a grain field in the California of to-day. It is fall or early winter, and the time for planting has arrived. Into the field, which is several thousands of acres in extent, comes a great engine, one that does not need a track to run upon. Over the ground it rolls. With strength equal to fifty horses it draws behind it sixteen ten-inch plows, four six-foot harrows, and a press drill to match. It takes only a few men to manage it, and in a short time it has plowed, harrowed, and sown the broad acres; nothing is left to do until the harvest time arrives.

When the grain is ripe, there comes another great machine. This is the harvester, whose knives or cutters may be as much as twenty-six feet wide. This one machine cuts off the heads of wheat, thrashes them, cleans the grain, and sacks it, clearing seventy-five acres in a day, leaving on the fields the piles of sacked wheat ready for market. It is most interesting to watch one of these giants of steel and iron traveling over the uneven ground, crossing ditches, crawling along side hills, without any trouble or change of pace, gathering in the ripe grain, turning it out snugly tucked away in the brown gunny-sacks waiting for its long journey by ship or car. How the padres would wonder if they could see it working!

The grain of the California wheat is white and soft, and contains much gluten. No matter what hard red or yellow varieties are brought from other countries and planted here, in a year or two they change to the California type. It is not certainly known what causes this peculiarity. The grain most in favor through the state is called "club wheat" from the form of the head, which is blockshaped, instead of long and slender. The "club wheat" holds fast its grain so that it can be harvested without falling to the ground, which, in so dry a climate, is a great point in its favor.

Wheat is raised all over the state, both on high and on low land. Some of the largest grain ranches are along the tule lands around Stockton. These were marshes once, but have been drained, and now are choice grain fields. Wheat was first sent out of the state to England as ballast for returning ships, but the trade gradually increased until there are now over one hundred of the finest sailing vessels engaged in it. Unfortunately, few of these vessels are American, perhaps but one fourth. It is a pity that our countrymen should not benefit more by this trade. During the grain season at most of the Pacific ports the flag of nearly every nation on earth is represented. All styles of shipping, from the largest modern steamer to the smallest ocean sailing vessel, are then to be found in the harbors of the coast.

Grain is carried to the docks in barges, schooners, or on cars, and is seldom shipped except in sacks. Wheat, unless it needs to be cleaned or graded, is kept in the sack in which it leaves the home field. To watch the grain being loaded in the ship is a sight well worth seeing. If the wharf, or car, or warehouse where it lies is higher than the deck of the vessel on which it is to be shipped, the sacks are placed on an inclined chute down which they descend to the hold of the ship. If the deck of the vessel is the higher, sometimes an endless belt, run by electricity, is placed in a chute, the sacks are laid on the belt, and so carried to their resting place.

In loading wheat for export, a number of sacks in each row are bled; that is, a slit is made in the sack which allows a small quantity of grain to escape and fill the spaces round the corners and sides of the sack, thus making a compact cargo which is not liable to shift. At Port Costa is located a grader, where, when necessary. wheat can be cleaned and graded; here also are many large warehouses.

For a long time about two thirds of the wheat crop of the state was sent to Ireland, but now our new lands in the Pacific take much of it. California has an immense trade in wheat that has been ground into flour. Over six million dollars' worth of flour is shipped each year, nearly three fourths of it going to China, Japan, and the islands of the Pacific.

It is believed by scientific agriculturists that better results will be obtained in wheat raising as smaller ranches become the rule, where the farmer can give more attention to the needs of the grain, adding what is necessary to the soil. Often the alternation of crops increases the yield - wheat doing much better if planted where beans or other legumes were raised the year before. Where the grain fields are not so large, irrigation can be depended upon instead of the rainfall, and crops then are sure and more even in quantity.

Barley is the grain next in importance to wheat in California. It can be raised where wheat can not, as it needs less moisture for its development; and if the rains fail, it can be cut for hay which always brings a good price. Barley hay, with the heads on, is in California the chief food of horses, and in many cases of cattle. A horse for ordinary work fed on barley hay gets all the grain necessary. If on account of heavier work, stronger food is required, rolled barley is given in addition. A large quantity of the better graded barley grain raised in the state is used by the brewers for malt.

Corn does not do so well through the state in general, but in some locations it is justly claimed that a man can ride on horseback down the rows of corn without being seen over the tops. This, too, the padres brought into the state. The tortilla, the common food of the Spanish settlers, was made of coarse-ground or pounded corn.

Alfalfa, the wonderful forage plant of dry regions of the West, is a member of the clover family. Throughout the southern and middle portion of California are large ranches devoted to its culture for hay. It is also raised extensively for green feed for horses and cattle. It produces from three to six crops a year according to location and care given it, and is treated for the market much the same as barley hay, except that it is generally made into smaller bales. Alfalfa is raised by irrigation, the best method being from flumes opening into indentations, not so deep as furrows, from which the water spreads, flooding the whole surface.

Many a California young man from high school gets his first taste of work away from home in the harvest fields. Generally this is a good experience for him. He receives some pretty hard knocks, and sees the rough side of life, but if he has self-control and good principles, he will be the better for the venture, returning more manly, earnest, and self-reliant.

Previous Page
Up One Level
Next Page