Ukrainians brought the gift of wheat 150 years ago.

The Seed Chest That Carried the Future

By Karen Schwartz | Photography by Nils Ericson

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Turkey Red Wheat Chest

Seeds of Hope, Delivered Thousands of Miles

This chest delivered Turkey Red Wheat seed thousands of miles from the Ukraine to the United States, where Mennonites looking for religious freedom hoped to make a new life.

The hearty grain proved just as fruitful here as it was in the Ukraine, offering the immigrants a foundation for their new community. And those crops helped form the beginnings of a thriving economy that lives on today: Kansas is the biggest wheat producer in the United States, growing one–fifth of its wheat.

One man’s treasure

The chest came to Kansas by careful design. Bernhard Warkentin, the son of a Mennonite miller who is credited with setting up Ukraine’s prosperous wheat industry, came to the United States in 1871 to scout possible sites to do the same in America.

Along with several of his fellow Mennonites, he travelled for two years by both horse and train covering a distance of over 10,000 miles in places like Canada, the Dakotas and Minnesota, looking for the ideal terrain.

In Kansas, he found what he was looking for: “The climate here is similar to that of the steppes in Ukraine,” says Fern Bartel, director of the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum in Goessel, Kansas. “Long winters. Dry in the summer, rainy in the fall and spring.”

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Part of a movement

The search for a new home in America was not solely about money. Ukrainian Mennonites of the 1870s had a deadline hanging over their heads: In 1880, their exemption from the Czar’s army would be coming to end, setting them up to go against their pacifist beliefs.

Once he saw the potential to create a new farming community, Warkentin encouraged others to come over. Western railroad companies helped; they hoped to develop communities along their lines to increase profits through the transport of products and grains. In late 1873, the Mennonite Board of Guardians was formed in Kansas to assist them, with Warkentin as its agent.

That year, 12,000 Ukrainian Mennonites moved to Kansas. Many became wheat farmers.

Migrants seeking land in the Great Plains carry chests filled with a tough grain that will transform Kansas into America’s bread basket.

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What happened next

Warkentin continued to build community in Kansas, sitting on boards of banks and insurance companies, and founding a college, a hospital and an insurance company.

In 1908, Warkentin travelled with his wife to the Middle East and was accidentally shot on a train, dying a few days later. Two years later, the secretary of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, F.D. Coburn, told the Saturday Evening Post, “Thirty years ago Kansas was not much of a wheat–growing state— At the present time and for ten years past Kansas has led in wheat growing, and much of the credit for making Kansas a great wheat state belongs to one man, the late Bernhard Warkentin.”

Turkey Red Wheat became one of the more popular varieties of wheat until about the 1940s, when higher–yield crops overtook it.

Turkey Red Wheat Seeds
Dry Turkey Red Wheat


Land owned by the Warkentin family is still farmed for wheat, and there are now more than 500,000 Mennonites concentrated in rural regions from Kansas to Pennsylvania and Montana. Turkey Red Wheat is considered a heritage grain now, but it can still be purchased from boutique millers. Slow Food USA says it has a “unique, rich, and complex flavor and excellent baking qualities.”

The chest today, and others like it, can be found at the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum. “Just touching it is a bit like being there,” says Judy Camp, Warkentin’s great granddaughter.

Chest Open
Chest with repair patches
Chest surface close up
Wheat Centennial Plate

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