To Plant the Prairies and the Plains
The Life and Work of Niels Ebbesen Hansen (1941)

Mrs. H. J. Taylor


The U.S.S.R. Asks Help

In 1934 the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences invited Doctor Hansen to Russia requesting his advice in recreating agriculture in the Soviet Union. Russia was alert to the culture of fruits and grains so needed by her people, and was ready to go anywhere in the world for scientists to help advance her agricultural and horticultural program.

When Niels Hansen was sent by the United States Government to explore for plants in the Arctic regions of the Old World, Russia had asked herself why the American Government was sending a man to spy around and see what cattle were feeding upon and what the people were eating. They asked themselves why this explorer would buy a load or a stack of hay and take only the seeds and leave the rest. Why did he buy melons—lots of them—and taking the seeds give us the rest? "He must be a generous fellow." The Russians knew there were other reasons and motives in the mind of the explorer who told them they had the best wheat and that they also had other things that America does not have, and they began "spying." With avidity Russia assimilated Hansen's ideas. In this sequence of events Russia has been buying seeds and plants from the United States. I doubt if any nation is carrying on a more thorough or farther reaching program in agricultural research than is Russia at this time. Basic thoughts become world-wide ideas and belong to all who can assimilate and use them.

It was June, 1934, when Doctor Hansen reached Russia. For four months he journeyed hither and thither over the country. He saw what the Russians were trying to do and realized their ambition and courage in great undertakings for the welfare of the people.

He had made five trips during the reign of the czars and two after the revolution. Forty years had passed since his first trip to Russia in 1894. He was qualified to note and to evaluate some of the changes that she had undergone. In his search for seeds, plants, and shrubs over the steppes of Siberia and beyond, the climatic and soil conditions, and also the people, became well known to him. The peasants, who had aided him in carrying on his work of collecting, were a drab, silent, subdued part of the Russian population. Hansen says: "I am forced to report that at the moment (1934) the Soviet Union is leading the world in creative agricultural research. Probably at no time in the history of man has any other nation poured so much money, so much man-power, so much energy, into search for and development of worthwhile new products of the land.

"As I look back over the vast and often melancholy pageant of rural Russia, I have known three compelling pictures to stand out above the ruck: First, the inarticulate suffering of the peasantry, the attitude of cringing listlessness, which I saw on my first visits from 1894 to 1913. Second, the bewilderment, the restlessness, the groping for direction in farm life, which were so apparent when I toured the Soviet in 1925. And finally, a picture of serenity and industry in 1934."

Doctor Hansen says that one of the most visible changes in Russia is to be seen in the peasant dress. The drab black, which had always and invariably been the peasant garb, is disappearing as the love for bright, beautiful color finds possibility of fulfillment.

Hansen wrote a book for the Russians called A HUNDRED POINTS. It was translated by V. A. Rybin and published in Russia in 1937. It stresses that open-mindedness is essential to develop plant life for a new region, and formulates a comprehensive plan for agriculture and horticulture in the whole of Soviet Union. The first edition of 4000 copies was exhausted in a few days after publication. There are indications that much of this program was adopted. In August of 1936, two Russian scientists came to visit Doctor Hansen in South Dakota and the following January, three more Russians with the authority of the Russian Government came. They purchased about four million pounds of alfalfa seed in the prairie region of the West, especially every pound of Cossack seed that the dealers would sell. They fairly stripped the Western market of alfalfa seed.

The Russians can not raise alfalfa seed in abundance. In the United States alfalfa seed-raising is confined almost entirely to the country west of the Mississippi River, and is a commercial product of importance in Dakota and the prairie Northwest which the Soviet Union needed to carry out its plans for agriculture. Thus the half-teaspoonful of Cossack alfalfa seed found its way home.

There are great men who spend their years in loyalty to an idea. It matters little or not at all to the individual that his name is unknown. What does matter is that his idea shall result in action to the benefit of mankind. Such a man was Ivan Valdimirovitch Mitchurin—the great plant wizard of Russia. Until a few years before his death, which occurred in 1935, Mitchurin was almost unknown beyond his own little circle. Without recognition or assistance, he carried on his work for more than half a century. The inspiration that comes from appreciation and encouragement of work and its values is the sunshine that carries it forward joyously and buoyantly, but under the czars he had no such sunshine. Doctor Hansen calls Mitchurin "one of the greatest plant-breeders of all time." He says (COUNTRY GENTLEMAN, March, 1935, p. 3):

"It was my great privilege in 1934 to visit Mitchurin and to study his great work. Lenin had heard of Mitchurin, and he knew also that his country was in urgent need of hardy fruits for the northern latitudes—to give people a better balanced diet. Mitchurin was made head of a new research institute for fruit growing, and large funds were placed at his disposal. At Mitchurinsk, formerly Koslov, there are now more than 20,000 acres devoted to orchards, small fruits and nurseries—likewise, a school of horticulture with an enrollment of 600 students. Scattered over the country are twenty-two zonal or sub-stations of the research institute. One hundred and forty specialists work under the direction of Mitchurin, who, despite his eighty years, is still active. Mitchurin is now one of the heroes of his country."

Mitchurin, warmed by appreciation, inspired by his eager and alert students, began the work of agricultural development with all possible speed and enthusiasm. The work went forward as never before and fruit culture was extended into colder latitudes where it had been unknown. Lenin knew that such a plant-breeder was rare, and the country was realizing the value of Mitchurin. In 1934 the Soviet Union bestowed its highest honor—the Order of Lenin—upon him. Besides the Gold Medal of Honor, the order carries with it a life time pass on the railroads and a pension.

In September of 1934, the Soviet Union declared a national holiday lasting four days to honor Mitchurin for the sixty fruitful years of service he had given Russia. Trains from all parts of Russia brought thousands of interested and distinguished guests eager to see and hear the great plant-breeder and to learn of his work first-hand. Hansen says (COUNTRY GENTLEMAN, March, 1935, p. 66): "It was a brilliant scene. And a fine old scientist, who decade after decade had labored in comparative obscurity but now at last was receiving the deserved tribute of a nation, was tremulous with gratitude and happiness. Mitchurin's address was a landmark in the horticultural history of the world. During the course of the ceremonies at Mitchurinsk, I was invited to the platform to represent America, and my remarks were interpreted to the audience by the internationally famous N. I. Vavilov, who now heads the Soviet's division of plant industry... Despite the fact that he has been all over the world and knows this earth as few agricultural scientists do, he seems never to have a surfeit of new ideas. The authority which has been placed in his hands is indicative of the importance which is attached to agricultural research in the New Russia. Vavilov is one of the very few in the Soviet Union whose checkbook is unlimited; he can draw on the government for any sum needed. If he sees some problem that is begging for solution, with a stroke of the pen he can put a dozen or fifty or a hundred men on the job. At the moment (1934) he has several thousand research men under his direction. It is the aim of this agricultural chieftain to gather and bring to Russia all the genes of every species of plant in the world which is used for breeding purposes. He has made a substantial beginning by sending not less than one hundred expeditions to foreign lands, and the material they have brought in already gives the Soviet a working background which no other country has ever possessed."

It was a great day for Mitchurin and a great day for Hansen. Kindred spirits in self-forgetfulness as they bring more abundant life to unnumbered and unnamed thousands, both were honored by the Soviet Union on this appointed holiday in September, 1934.

The four-day Mitchurin celebration was an event for all Russia. It was a rare opportunity for interested and expert horticulturists to see what had been done and what was in progress of doing. The great orchards at Mitchurinsk visibly proclaimed success and the great plantbreeder imparted his knowledge and his vision to all who had capacity to receive.

Hansen says that Russia is more active in exploring for plants in foreign countries than is any other country. Russian explorers have been searching in Mexico and in the Andes of South America where they found a new species of potato resistant to frost and immune to blight.

As guest of Soviet Russia, in 1934, Hansen was Vice President and Science Head of the Siberian expedition in search of fruits, especially crabapples and apricots that would thrive in northern latitudes. His son, Carl, accompanied him as Technical Assistant.

Doctor Hansen and Ivan Mitchurin among collective farmers arrived to celebrate the Mitchurin Jubilee
Doctor Hansen standing in grass gathered in the Caucaus Mountains. It is Agropyrum elongatum, the parent of perennial wheat.


Perennial Wheat

The hope of perennial wheat has long been the dream of agricultural scientists. Russia has great need for it. America's need for it has increased annually as the plough has turned the sod to destroy vast pastures in the western plains, and add them to the dust bowl. Perennial wheat offers the hope that annual plowing will become unnecessary and that the roots of the crop itself, like those of native grasses, will hold the top-soil securely in place.

Doctor Hansen says (COUNTRY GENTLEMAN, March 1935, p. 5): "On my seventh trip (1934) of agricultural exploration... I saw startling evidence that the cherished dream of the wheat breeders is approaching realization. At the experiment station located at Omsk, West Siberia, I found a group of scientists under the direction of Dr. N. V. Tzitzin, digging into the problem with that almost feverish zeal which characterizes all the gigantic industrial and agricultural endeavors now under way in the new Russia. Already these men have achieved a perennial wheat. The task which remains is to improve further the quality of the plant by breeding selection; then to produce, as quickly as possible, seed for distribution. Doctor Tzitzin and his associates approached their problem... by conducting extensive explorations in the wild grass lands of Russia and Siberia. Native grasses—perennial in character—which produced seed in abundance, were found and brought into the laboratory. Experimentation began. The wild grasses were crossed with various varieties of wheat, by hand pollination, the grass in most cases being used as the mother plant... The one which may revolutionize the wheat industry of the world is the grass which was found on the high mountain steppes of the North Caucasus region. It is a true perennial of vigorous, tall, strong growth, and very productive of seed. It is immune to fungus disease. It grows luxuriantly even in alkali or salt soils. Its scientific name is Agropyron elongatum... The plant breeders at Omsk are still experimenting with other grasses. It would not surprise me if Soviet Russia soon finds itself in a position to make a notable gift to the world—the gift of perennial wheat." Doctor Tzitzin gave Hansen a little seed of the mother plant used in hybridizing for perennial wheat. On his return to Brookings, he grew a few plants from this original seed which he distributed as follows: two plants each were sent to Washington, D. C. and to the agricultural experiment stations of Minnesota, Indiana, and Texas. Since then the distribution has increased greatly.

"Doctor Tzitzin, whose ventures are backed by the State Grain Trust, was handed a million rubles for his research, and if he should need another million to finish the job, I have no doubt he will get it. The monumental work with perennial wheat is merely typical." The sturdy, native grasses used in wheat hybridizing experiments are not found elsewhere on the globe. Doctor Hansen says: "The plant breeders at Omsk are still experimenting with other grasses. But it will take an extraordinary plant to go beyond Agropyron elongatum. It seems to cross readily with all varieties of wheat—with winter wheat and with spring wheat, both hard and soft. Agropyron elongatum contributes rust resistance as one of the dominant characteristics of the hybrid. Literally thousands of hand pollinations have been made, and the hybrids then have been crossed back to wheat.

"Hybrids produced from Agropyron elongatum seem to be exuberant with life and virility. I saw many great bushy plants over three feet in diameter. Some of the hybrids of the third generation had as many as 500 heads on one plant... yet hybrids of the fifth generation—a stage at which the type seems to be more or less stabilized—often showed as many as twelve stems on one stool... Many of the hybrids I saw were true wheat, with strong, beautiful heads of grain of apparent good quality. Some of them were bearded; others bore typical smooth, square spikes of beardless wheat."

The short planting season in Russia and their enormous wheat farms ranging from 700 acres to 20,000 acres, or even more, makes seeding a very important matter, if rain interferes it becomes a serious matter. Hansen says (COUNTRY GENTLEMAN, March 1935, p. 6): "On some of the great state and collective farms, the difficulty has been met, to a degree, by seeding from airplanes; and I saw several excellent fields of grain, evenly sown, which had been planted in this manner. But perennial wheat, of course, is a step beyond aviation. If the work at Omsk proves entirely successful, one seeding will last for a lifetime."

Hansen believes that when perennial wheat is achieved there will be no need for wars of conquest to obtain food for hungry millions. The Soviet scientists plan for the day when wheat will be everywhere on the dry steppes, immune to rust and alkali soils, and so common that bread can be made a free commodity—as free as water and air—with the cost of production merged into the general cost of government. Some of the hybrids already developed make good flour and good bread and are perennial in habit, but yield so far is variable, some are very productive.

Priceless murals cover the walls and ceilings of the palace where, a few years ago, Count Stroganoff lived. Here and there are remains of its once lavish furnishings. Today this palace is the experiment laboratory for perennial wheat. Plain wooden tables, filled with growing plants of perennial wheat occupy halls once gay with dazzling society.