​Wheat production is unique in South Africa in the sense that there are three distinct wheat production areas, each with their own challenges and specific requirements. 

 

​Rainfed spring wheat in the Western Cape​Rainfed winter wheat in the Free State​Irrigated spring wheat in the summer rainfall area

 

Wheat (Triticum aestivum)


Wheat is one of the first plants to be domesticated as a food crop by ancient civilizations.  It originated from wild grasses native to the arid countries northwest of Fertile Crescent (between Armenia and the Caspian Sea in western Asia) between 8 000 and 10 000 years ago. It is now grown in virtually all parts of the world and is considered an important grain crop in the world economy.

Wheat is special for several reasons:

  • Bread wheat contains three sets of 7 pairs of chromosomes giving a total of 21 pairs, seven pairs belonging to each of the A, B, and D genomes.  The complex nature of the genome provides great plasticity to the crop which explains why it is so widely adaptable and can be cultivated in a very wide range of environments from warm to cold areas with low to high rainfall as well as under irrigated conditions. 
  • Wheat flour contains a special protein called gluten with unique viscoelastic properties that allows the dough to trap minute bubbles of carbon dioxide when fermentation occurs in leavened dough, causing the dough to rise.  Wheat flour can this be transformed into a soft, light bread with a fine texture.
  • Durum wheat used for pasta (Triticum turgidum var, durum) is genetically different to bread wheat with only two sets of 7 pairs of chromosomes from the A and B genomes giving a total 14 pairs of chromosomes and entirely different flour quality characteristics.
  • Wheat is a C3 plant and can be grown at very high altitudes due to its cool environment adaptation.
  • There are large differences in grain composition and processing quality among the many different cultivars of wheat grown around the world.  Some are suited to leavened bread, others to flat bread, some to noodles, still others to tortillas and some to soft cookies.  World trade uses six wheat classifications: 1) hard red winter, 2) hard red spring, 3) soft red winter, 4) durum (pasta), 5) hard white, and 6) soft white wheat. The harder wheats have the highest gluten content and are used for making leavened bread, rolls and all-purpose flour. The softer wheats are used for making flat bread, cakes, pastries, crackers, muffins, and biscuits.

 

The first wheat was planted in South Africa in the winter of 1652 by Jan van Riebeeck and by 1684 wheat production was well established in the Cape.  The original cultivars grown in South Africa were brought here by trading vessels which travelled between Europe and the East Indies.  Evaluation of wheat cultivars was started in 1891 with the first wheat breeding starting to take place in 1902.​