You’d be forgiven for thinking that most of what farmers grow in the United States are food crops.
It’s the stereotypical image that pops into the minds of many Americans when someone says the word “farmer” – someone in the Midwest, probably older (the average age of an American farmer is 57 ), probably white and probably a man, sowing wheat seeds for our bread, oats for our oatmeal and corn for our barbecues.
In reality, most American farmers produce corn and soybeans for biofuels and animal feed, not for humans. According to an article by the University of Minnesota’s Environmental Institute, only 55% of crops are grown for human consumption. And a map from National Geographic shows that in the United States, this mix is even more heavily skewed towards the production of animal feed and fuel.
The reason is quite simple: corn and soybeans are more profitable and are heavily subsidized by the government. So plant-based milk darling Oatly steps in to become and create a support system for farms growing other crops and simultaneously creating a local oat supply chain for its production while helping farms to become more sustainable.
“We decided to create a pilot project and ask the question: what would it take to incentivize farmers who are part of the American breadbasket corn system to incorporate a crop like oats into their rotation? said Julie Kunen, Director of Sustainability at Oatly.
Oatly has partnered with two nonprofits, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Sustainable Food Lab, and a northern Iowa oat miller, Grain Millers, to help farmers add oats and a cover crop in their corn and soybean rotations. The 2021 season, from summer to late fall, was the last year of their third-year rotation, completing the cycle for each crop: oats; blanket; But; and soy. In 2021, 14 farmers sold 1,270 acres of grain to Grain Millers, or about 104,000 bushels of oats. (A bushel of raw oats weighs about 32 pounds.) Ten farmers and more than 1,000 acres have already been enrolled in the program for the 2022 oat crop.
Oatly provides grants to farmers to start growing oats and promises to buy the oats after they are harvested. That guarantee helps offset economic pressure to grow corn and soybeans, which sell for a higher value, up to two to three times more per bushel than oats, according to Kunen.
“I’m not going to be Pollyannaish about it,” Kunen said. “The economy is really tough. [The farmers] don’t make that much money. We provide some security in terms of there being a market, but they can sell corn and soybeans at a higher price. So that was a challenge.”
Another element of support for the pilot project is the free agronomic education provided by the Practical Farmers of Iowa as farmers push into uncharted oat territory.
“We continue to share the risk of adding a new crop when there isn’t a ton of infrastructure to support it,” said Lydia English, field crop sustainability manager at Practical Farmers of Iowa.
Fifth-generation Minnesota farmer Martin Larson hailed the nonprofit as a phenomenal resource that helped him get to where he is today in oat farming.
“Every time you come out of what you’ve done as a farmer, we have this apprehension that you really only have one chance,” Larson said. “You can’t be like, ‘I screwed up. Let’s do a revamp this year.’ We can’t do it again.”
And according to Larson, it has been very difficult to step out of its corn and soybean comfort zone due to heavy subsidies and high insured prices.
“You’re giving up a lot of the protection that you have under the corn and soybean system,” he said.
This is where bringing the mill in as a partner was key to making farmers feel comfortable dipping their toes into a new crop. Oats are a unique crop when it comes to food production. Unlike corn and soy, where the varieties grown for animal feed or biofuels are completely different from those grown for human consumption, for oats it’s the same plant but the oats have to be a certain weight to be qualified for human food compared to animal food. Making these notes is very dependent on the weather during the growing season. It also relies on tricks of the trade learned just by growing oats for a few seasons and knowing when to plant, when to spray with fungicide, when to water, etc.
Oatly’s partner mill, Grain Millers, promises to find buyers for oats grown under the Oatly-farmer partnership that are not food-grade and therefore cannot be purchased by Oatly.
“It is not uncommon for me to receive calls from farmers [not in the Oatly program] who are like, ‘I wouldn’t mind crashing [oats] again, but I still have oats from last year and I can’t get rid of them,” said English. “So having that security that it doesn’t matter if you have a place to sell them is really important for someone with acres of corn or soybeans where they know they can sell them and add something new instead. »
Larson agreed that the factory purchase guarantee gave him a level of comfort to dive into the oat plantation. He is up about 150 acres of oats on his total land of about 700 acres.
Even food-grade oats sell for less than corn and soybeans, but with Oatly’s guarantees and sustainability benefits, some farmers decide it’s worth taking the cut in profits on these acres.
The sustainability benefits of oats
What’s so good about adding oats to a farm from a sustainability perspective? According to English and Kunen, simply having more biodiversity on farms brings great ecological benefits. By extending the crop rotation period, you can break pest cycles, alleviate planting and harvesting pressures by having more staggered seasons throughout the year. This often results in better soil health, which means farmers can use less fertilizer.
Beyond these general benefits, oats are a particularly good crop for soil health and water quality, according to Larson.
Oats are phenomenal for groundwater health.
“Oats are phenomenal for groundwater health,” Larson said. “Oats have a deep rooting system. They’re fibrous and intertwined. It’s the kind of rooting structure that can collect nitrates and hold them.” Unlike corn, a crop low in nitrogen.
According to Larson, if you grow corn after corn has been grown, the groundwater below the corn’s rooting zone will contain nitrate levels more than twice the drinking water standard. Larson saw this firsthand with a shallow well on his farm. The water went from 12 parts per million (ppm) of nitrates to less than 3.8 (ppm) after his oat rotations.
But even with environmental benefits on the plus side and economic pressures on the minus side, it’s the simplest thing that makes growing oats desirable for these farmers.
“Growing food again was important to me and rewarding for me,” Larson said.