State of the Oat: Grain Suits Our Area Well, But Learning Curve Is Steep
Of all the cereal grains, none grows better in northern New England than oats. In my ramblings around Vermont and southern Québec in the 1970s I met many older farmers who told me stories about growing oats.
“See that pine woods down there beside your lower pasture,” my neighbor Sam Pion told me. “I remember reaping and stooking a fine crop of oats there when I was a kid. It must have been about 1936.”
Another old gentleman, Hall Buzzell of Derby, recounted tales of traveling the Orleans County countryside doing custom work with his two International Harvester Model 64 pull-type combines in the ’50s and ’60s.
If you grew any grain, it was oats. Farm-raised oats were stored in makeshift wooden bins in the corners of a hayloft. If the crop was harvested and put away on the moist side, the oats could begin to heat and spoil. The common remedy to this problem was to jam as many dry wooden fence posts into the pile of grain as possible. The wood would suck the moisture out of the oats and then be extracted.
Oats as a grain crop began to fall out of favor in the late 1960s. Several wet summers in a row made it impossible to harvest a decent crop. People gave up and started cutting their green oats for hay in July instead of waiting until late August to combine them for grain.
I harvested my first crop of grain in 1977. We began with barley and wheat. We cut and shocked the grain with a grain binder, field-dried the stooks and threshed it with a big galvanized French Canadian threshing machine. I was pleased with our beginners’ luck.
In 1978, I tried about six acres of oats. The variety was Gary and I bought the seed from my mentor, Clarence Huff, a 75-year-old English farmer from Moes River, Québec. I was simply amazed at how the oats thrived. They grew to near chest high and when ripe turned the most beautiful golden color I had ever seen. Very quickly I discovered that oats are as much a straw crop as they are a grain crop. They do double duty providing both feed and the most wonderful bedding for one’s animals.
When we took the grain binder out to reap the oats, I couldn’t believe it was the same machine I had used the year before. It worked smoothly and flawlessly, leaving nary a spear of unbound straw anywhere in the field. Barley and wheat are much shorter in stature and bear one seed head per stalk. Oats, on the other hand, are bushy with a hairdo. Each plant has multiple branches and bears its fruit on hanging panicles. These little “grain trees” give a ripe field of golden oats an Impressionistic, almost fuzzy look. All those extra branches made the job of the grain binder that much easier.
I had another one of those “aha!” moments. Not only do oats grow well here, but they had a special relationship with the old-fashioned harvesting machinery. At threshing time, I was once more surprised at how much grain and straw we got from a mere six acres—piles and piles of it.
So oats became part of my grain repertoire along with wheat and barley. Oats always did the best of any of the cereals. They could tolerate wetter soil and excessive rainfall and still yield well. This wasn’t true for wheat and barley. After a few more seasons of crop growing, I learned from some Québecois farmers how to mix oats with wheat and peas for super-quality livestock feed. They called it cereals mélanges or mixed grain. I very quickly found out that although it was more difficult to grow, barley was the cow grain of choice. All those hulls on the oats make it a much more fibrous grist and less palatable to dairy cows. Straight oats might be OK for horses, but that was about it.
As I began to educate myself at the school of hard knocks, I soon learned that there are heavy oats and there are light oats. The groat inside all that hull can either be big and meaty or small and shriveled or somewhere in between. Grain density is figured by the number of pounds it takes to make a bushel. Light oats weigh below 32 pounds per bushel while their heavyweight cousins can fall anywhere between 38 and 42 pounds. We weren’t weighing our bushels back then, but I knew we were growing light oats. After a while, it became obvious that grain quality was directly related to high mineral content in the soil.
I have continued to grow oats over the past three decades even though they have become a relatively minor crop for me. Lots of people still plant hay crops using oats as a nurse crop undersown with clover, timothy and alfalfa. I have seed cleaning equipment and have done quite well selling plump heavy oat seed to other organic farmers. Oats are shorter now and stand up better than in the early days when we planted the Gary variety.
About five years ago, I got the hankering to do something more with my oats. Here was this wonderful grain so well adapted to our climate. The inner oat groat is higher in fat than any other cereal and runs as high as 16% in protein. No wonder that oats are the grain of choice for breakfast cereals, whether it be Cheerios or good old-fashioned oatmeal.
Darn that loose-fitting hull. If I could only figure out a way to dehull my oats, the demand for them would be unlimited. So I set about to learn as much as I could about the process.
The first person I called was Andy Leinoff from Cabot Plains, who started Eric and Andy’s Rolled Oats in the 1990s. Andy’s advice to me was, “Don’t bother. It’s not worth it.” He then proceeded to give me his antique 1885 Wolfe roller mill. I gladly added it to my collection of old machines with the intention of using it someday. Then I brought some of my oats up to Michel Gaudreau in Compton, Québec, for hulling and flaking. Crossing the border in two different directions with my grain was a bureaucratic nightmare and I swore I would never do that again. The other thing that surprised me was how little oatmeal I got back from the mountains of oats I had taken to his mill. I found out later that he recleaned my grain, extracting at least 25% as light oats, which he kept and sold to other farmers for livestock feed. I also lost all the hulls, which could have been used for low-test feed grain or bedding. I thought I was pretty cool with my own rolled oats, but on paper it was anything but profitable.
My quest to process my own oats on my own farm continued. Andy told me about an outfit named Codema near Minneapolis that specialized in oat processing machinery. Codema made their own huller, which cost close to $20,000. The Codema huller needed to be paired with a stand-alone aspirator for blowing away the loose hulls and a large shaking device called a paddy table to sift the unhulled oats from the finished groats. Total cost of this outfit brand new could run as high as $100,000.
What was I to do? I certainly wasn’t Quaker. I had to find a way to do it on the cheap.
I bought a rebuilt older-model Roskamp Champion oat huller from the Codema people for $18,000. In retrospect, it might not have been the right thing to do because it was designed for livestock feed use and not for human consumption processing. This machine wouldn’t get every last single hull. The Roskamp has its own blower fan and recleaning unit. I had to supply a rather large vent to carry the hulls away and hang a cyclone off the side of my granary to direct them into a wagon outside. After doing this and installing three-phase power to run the thing, the total outlay had doubled. So much for being economical.
We hulled our first oats and made some breakfast porridge with the groats. It certainly wasn’t like store-bought. We were constantly picking loose hulls from our teeth and spitting them out. We didn’t mind, but we were sure that our customers would. We now had our own whole-oat groats for personal consumption and that was about it. It seemed like pretty expensive homegrown breakfast cereal.
Further research took me back to Codema. I applied for a Vermont Housing and Conservation Board infrastructure grant and was awarded $15,000 to buy a used paddy table and whatever else I needed to process my own oats. Paddy tables come from the rice industry and are used to separate hulled from unhulled rice. They are large multi-decked contraptions that shake back and forth, fore and aft. Oats enter at the top and make their way downward through five levels bouncing off little triangles. For some reason I don’t understand, the good oat groats travel to one side while the remaining hulled grains exit in the back. The best models have names like Buhler and Schuler and come from places like Germany and Switzerland. Luckily, Codema had a used one they were taking out of a mill in Winnipeg. The only hitch was that I might have to wait a year or two, which I gladly did. Finally, after a very long wait, my used machine arrived by tractor trailer one late fall day in 2011. I was now equipped to dehull oats on my own farm. All I had to do was learn how to use all this stuff.
Learning how to dehull grain has been an adventure. The Roskamp huller sounded like an airplane taking off when we first pulled the “on” lever of its switch box. We placed the machine on the second floor of our granary. Whole unhulled oats were sent by elevator to a holding tank above the huller. The oats fell by gravity through the huller and made their way to the ground floor below. A tempest of loose oat hulls traveled through ductwork to a collection point outdoors. We learned rather quickly to stay out of the way of the blowing hulls. They were downright itchy. We still weren’t up to Quaker standards, but we did have our own oat groats.
Standard procedure in the oat industry involves steaming and roasting whole-oat groats before they are flaked into oatmeal with a roller mill. The heating process is intended to stabilize the oats and prevent the onset of rancidity because of the extremely high fat levels found in this grain. At this point, we decided to dispense with all of this extra work and just consume the groats straight up.Instead of cooking oatmeal, we have whole-oat groats, soaked in whey the night before, parboiled and finished the following morning. (Anne’s recipe follows this article.)
We’ve learned a few tricks in dealing with the few wayward hulls that remain after the hulling process. If the oats are soaked in water, any loose hulls will float to the top. A couple of good rinses will go a long way in cleaning up some home-hulled oats. We now find regular oatmeal to be pasty and dull when compared to the chewiness and full-bodied nature of the whole oat.
I have made a few vain attempts to process my whole-oat groats into oatmeal with the 1885 Wolfe roller mill. We decided to forego the steaming and try cold rolling. The first time we fired up the antique machine, we were surprised at the beautiful appearance of the finished oat flakes. It must have been beginner’s luck because ever since then the old roller mill has given me fits. Belts keep popping off the side of the unit stopping us dead in our tracks. I need to call in a professional mechanic or machinist to help me recondition this old hulk for use in the 21st century.
For now, we’re pretty happy eating our whole groats for breakfast every morning. Try some whole-oat groats sometime. You’ll be surprised at how much better they are than plain old oatmeal.
Whole Oat Groats, Anne’s Way
Here’s Anne Lazor’s recipe for cooking whole oat groats. It might look daunting the first time, but she assures us that it’s worth the trouble. She says she gets the best results by starting early on the day before she wants to serve them.
Place whole oat groats in a saucepan. Add cold tap water to at least 1 inch over the oats. Swirl around with finger or spoon to encourage chaff to come to the surface. Gently pour off water, chaff and unhulled oats. Repeat this process 2 or 3 times and strain after last rinse.
Add cold water to rinsed oats—3 parts water to 1 part oats. Add whey from yogurt or lemon juice (about 2 tablespoons). Let oats soak at least 6 hours. (If this isn’t possible, it will still work.) You can “soak” at room temperature or in the fridge. The night before you want to eat them, bring oats in soaking water to a boil and simmer for 5–10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest overnight.
The next morning, cook oats as you would rolled oats. Add water or milk to make desired consistency. Add raisins or other fruit/nuts/ seeds for variety.