With soaring fuel prices and an urgent need for more-sustainable means of living, it is not surprising that there is a pressing search for green sources of energy. But it was not long ago that we did use a green source of fuel for powering farm labour – oats.
The dominant use was as stockfeed for draught horses and oxen that worked the fields to plant other crops – notably wheat and barley. However, they were also used as a breakfast staple by farm labourers.
Fourth-generation grain grower Megan Gooding remembers her grandfather telling her as a child to finish her bowl of porridge before she could eat her bacon and eggs. Intuitively, growers knew there was something good in oats.
Megan now farms with her husband Damien in partnership with Damien’s brother Ross (and his wife Pip), and Damien’s parents Malcolm and Helen Gooding. They are based at Moulyinning, between Kukerin and Dumbleyung, Western Australia, on 6000 hectares, cropping 5000ha of the clay-loam soils with 285 millimetres of growing-season rainfall. Oats have been grown on the property for four generations.
“Historically, oats used to be the first crop on cleared land,” Megan says. “Now they play an important part in our rotation on country that may be frost-prone, as oats tend to be hardier than either wheat or barley to frost.
However, oats are generally a low-value crop with an outdated pricing model, which often makes them less profitable than other crops we grow.
Determined to achieve greater value for their oat crops, Megan has ventured into the value-added market, together with two colleagues. They are capitalising on the provenance or origin and story of their oats, together with the increasing knowledge of the grain’s health attributes.
“We value-add our oats by catering to a niche market and partnering with businesses further up the supply chain. This provides us with scale and the skills required to make it viable. It also allows us to have direct dialogue with our customers, which is really valuable.
“It allows us to provide solutions for retailers and cater to exactly what customers want – and it also gives them an understanding of our farming systems and the challenges we face. Even something as simple as getting customers to understand the seasonality of crop production and the rotation planning it takes years in advance, is a major step forward.”
Understanding provenance is a win-win for customers and growers, Megan says.
It can be a great catalyst in getting more people connected to and educated about farming. For some customers, knowing where their food comes from is important and they are willing to pay a premium for traceability, which is what is needed to make these smaller-volume businesses direct from farm viable.
However, she says there is need for ongoing improvement for oats.
Season can have a big effect on the quality aspects of oats, as they are quite drought-sensitive, resulting in low-test-weight harvests.
“Customers are also looking for a high-protein oat, but this too is dependent on the growing season, so it is a challenge to be consistent. Customers also want high-fibre (specifically, beta-glucan) levels, which is desirable for its health benefits but because it is season-dependant is hard to achieve consistently every year, which is what customers demand.
“There is a need for breeding and agronomic improvements in these aspects for oats.”