In the early 19th century, Russia fed a large portion of Europe via the thriving port of Odessa, located on the Black Sea in Ukraine.
However, during the Civil War, quantities of American wheat started to stream across the Atlantic, resulting in a sharp decline in food prices in Europe. The development of Germany and Italy and the fall of the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire were all influenced by the cheap foreign grain—which played a significant role in the start of the Russian Revolution and World War I.
The premise that American wheat changed the balance of world power is the subject of a panel discussion being hosted by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of History on Friday, Oct. 21. The event, titled “What’s Grain Got To Do With It?” will begin at 7 p.m. in the Guerry Center Reading Room.
Open to the general public, the presentation is designed to explain the role of grain historically and present day.
The panel discussion was the idea of Bill Keener, the owner of Sequatchie Cove Farm—a diversified 300-acre farm located about 35 minutes northwest of downtown Chattanooga near the Cumberland Plateau. Sequatchie Cove Farm, a mainstay of the weekly Chattanooga Main Street Farmers Market, is one of the event’s co-sponsors.
“For 25 years, we have been growing and selling food, promoting a local food economy, working on ways to develop a stronger regional food source and ways to connect farmers to families,” Keener said.
“About five years ago after reading James Scott’s book, “Against the Grain,” which is a deep history of humanity, I realized that grain—the core of our diet—has not been in any of my equations. I began to learn about what other parts of the country and the world are doing to develop a stable, regional grain supply.”
Panelists coming to UTC include historian Scott Reynolds Nelson, Georgia Athletic Association Professor at the University of Georgia, and Mike McLain, regional manager for King Arthur Baking Company.
Nelson is the author of numerous books, including the recently released “Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World.”
In “Oceans of Grain,” Nelson detailed the paths traveled by grain—along rivers, between ports, and across seas—and told the story of how these routes transformed the balance of world power. His interpretation: Amid the great powers’ rivalries, there is no greater power than control of grain.
“As a former network engineer, I’ve always been interested in logistics and its relationship to power,” Nelson said. “How did the Southern Railway control politics in the South after the Civil War? How did John Henry rewrite the history of the South with a tunnel through the Appalachians? How have rapid changes in commodity prices brought depressions?”
Calling this book “my white whale,” Nelson said he looked at conflicts between the U.S. and the Russian Empire from the 1700s to the Russian Revolution, mostly over their ability to feed Europe.
“To do that,” he said, “I had to go back to 2800 BC, describe how food and plague shaped the Middle Ages and why a chokepoint at Istanbul was the world’s chokepoint.”
Nelson was asked what audience members should expect to learn by coming to this panel discussion.
“One issue is how to see the world the way that international grain traders see it,” he said, “and if we do that, we see the strategic and geopolitical importance of Ukraine. Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine—in this framework—is just one of many attempts by Russia to control the Black Sea for wheat exports, a conflict that caused over eight wars between 1800 and 1900.
“More broadly, the book gets us to see empires and states as flecks of foam on a much longer-term wave of international food trade, a trade that’s 5,000 years old.”
McLain will explain the process that takes grain from the fields to the mills to the bread on peoples’ plates. King Arthur Baking Company, known initially as Henry Wood & Company when founded in 1790, began milling flour from American-grown wheat in the 1820s.
UTC associate lecturer Mark Johnson will moderate the discussion.
“We need this forum on grain right now because everything has a history,” Johnson said. “With the invasion of Ukraine, we know there’s a history there, but it goes so much further back than most people know.
“We need this story because cheap American grain changed the world. We need to eat; it’s absolutely necessary, but we don’t pay enough attention to how food affects politics, diplomacy and so much more.”
A second “What’s Grain Got To Do With It?” event will occur at Sewanee: The University of the South on Saturday, Oct. 22.
Location: The Guerry Center is located near the southeast corner of Chamberlain Field in the center of the UTC campus. Parking is available in the Lot 12/Lupton Hall parking garage (middle or lower levels); there is no charge after 5 p.m. on weekdays and weekends. In addition, free street parking is available after 6 p.m.