Have you ever wondered, while enjoying a bite of oatmeal or granola, where the oats that enrich your snacks with several health benefits really come from? To answer this question, and many others, we thought we would make learning fun and talk about a topic we’re obsessed with: growing oats.
What Is So Special About Growing Oats?
For starters, oats fall into the field crop category. Among them are five other grain cereals you’ve probably heard of before: corn, wheat, barley, rye and sorghum (granted, that last one is a bit more obscure).
Interestingly, growing oats presents a lower risk of polluting surrounding waterways, as it requires less nitrogen.1 Oats are also a pretty competitive cereal, as they block the sunlight to herbs growing at the base of the plant and reduce the amount of herbicides used, as well as their harmful effect on the environment.2
Oats are also considered “green manure” because they can be used to improve the quality of the soil. By trapping nitrate in the ground, oats prevent it from contaminating groundwater. Plus, oats can use the stored nitrate to grow, which lowers the amount of fertilizer needed to mature.3
As wonderful as they are, oats are not the top crop grown worldwide: they actually rank sixth, with 1% of the world crop production for the 2020-2021 season.4
From coast to coast, Canadian oat production amounted to 4.6 million tons for the season, representing 7% of the national grain production. 4
Where Are Oats Cultivated?
Canada is a great place to grow oats because temperatures aren’t too hot. Plus, oats can handle cold better than other cereals, as long as it’s not freezing cold. No one, not even oats, likes it when it’s 30 degrees below zero outside!
That’s why oat production is located in areas of the world with temperate climates. No wonder Russia and Canada are the two main oat-producing countries, sharing more than 38% of the oatmeal cookie. 5
Here in Canada, oat production mostly comes from the Prairies. Saskatchewan wins first place with 52% of the Canadian production. 5 In comparison, 4.2% of Canadian oat production comes from Quebec.6 In the province, oats are cultivated in eastern Quebec, more precisely in regions such as Bas-Saint-Laurent, Gaspésie and Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean and Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
In recent years, oat production has grown steadily across Canada. Much of the oats consumed in the country are grown here, but some of it is also exported. Depending on the year, these exports can amount to 60% of the annual Canadian production.
How Are Oats Cultivated?
Growing oats starts with choosing the variety of oats or blend. The soil must be plowed, fertilized, weeded and treated, if necessary, while seedlings are prepped. Once in the ground, seedlings will eventually reach the germination stage. They grow up so fast :’)
Then comes harvest time, when the grain has reached maturity and its moisture content fluctuates between 16 and 18% (yes, it’s that precise). One thing to remember: dried oats spoil more easily. Crops are stored in a place where the grain’s moisture content is kept at 12% and where they can patiently await cleaning.
Weeds and hidden insects are then removed before sending the clean oats for processing, according to their end use. All these steps take about five months to complete, from April to August for oats sown in early spring.
When Are Oats Harvested?
If you thought we already answered this question at the end of the last paragraph, here is a major plot twist: there are two types of oats! Spring oats and fall oats, also called winter oats.
In Canada, oats are mostly a spring crop planted early in the season, from mid-April to late May, and harvested from mid-July to early August. The seeding is done early in the spring to take advantage of cooler temperatures and a more constant humidity level, in order to avoid diseases that can spread later in the season.
It’s worth noting that the period and duration for harvesting varies depending on climate conditions, the rotation of crop fields, the fertility of the soil and its humidity level.
How Are Oats Processed?
Oats meant to be consumed by humans, not animals or aliens, are basically milling oats. These are top-of-the-line oats, with higher quality standards than any other type of oats. Crops must be uniform and solely consist of oats, without discolouration, weeds or insects.
Oat almonds must be creamy white, puffed and have a specific weight. By the way, when we’re talking about oat almonds, we’re not referring to a delicious nut-cereal hybrid, but an oat product made from pure oat grains. It’s also worth noting that oats are removed from their husks to process only the grain at this stage.
Oatmeal, flour, granola and oat bran are some of the oat-based products that pretty much everyone knows about. That being said, processed foods like oat milk, ice cream and bars are becoming more common in our grocery stores. The growing demand for oats isn’t surprising because this cereal possesses remarkable nutritional properties, as it is a great source of fibres and beta-glucan.
Why Has Oatbox Chosen Organic Canadian Oats?
Like conventional oats, organic oat production in Canada is primarily concentrated in the Prairies, which is responsible for 93% of the organic oats grown in the country. Nonetheless, there are more than thirty organic oat producers in Quebec! Most of them are located in two regions: Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean and Bas-Saint-Laurent.
But what does it mean to grow organic oats? To put it simply, keep in mind that growing crops without pesticides, GMOs, growth hormones and other artificial substances makes it more challenging than conventional agriculture. Plus, the organic certification requires producers to follow guidelines very carefully.
The transition to organic farming must be planned well in advance and can be difficult at first. For example, current guidelines require that the producer’s land be handled according to organic standards for a period of 36 months before harvesting a certified organic crop for the first time. Basically, growing organic oats can be one roller oat-ster!
Despite a limited number of Canadian producers and a higher level of difficulty, our team has chosen to use organic oats harvested locally because they are better for you and better for the planet. Organic farming, which we adopted a long time ago, increases the soil’s ability to store carbon6, preserves the health of watersheds, helps reduce GHG emissions, increases the soil’s organic matter content, and doesn’t affect the health of pollinators when compared to conventional farming. 6
Oats are a pretty amazing cereal! Although it isn’t the most cultivated one in Canada, the country is a prime location to cultivate it, namely in the Prairies and in eastern Quebec. In fact, whether we’re talking about conventional or organic oats, most of the oat-based products that we eat are harvested locally. The demand for oats continues to grow each year, which makes us think that we’re not way out in left (oat) field. To learn more about the greater potential of oats, read our previous article.
1. Lafond, G. P. ; May, W. E. ; Holzapfel, C. B. “Row spacing and Nitrogen fertilizer effect on no-till oat production”. Agronomy J., [Online] 2013.
2. DAFWA. “Weeds and integrated weed management for oats”. Dept. Agric. Food. Government of Western Australia, 2006.
3. Destain, J.-P. ; Reuter V. ; Goffart, J.-P., “Les cultures intermédiaires pièges à nitrate (CIPAN) et engrais verts : protection de l'environnement et intérêt agronomique”, BASE [Online], Volume 14 (2010), Numéro spécial 1, 73-78.
4. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
5. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
6. Réseau Action Climat France. “Stockage du carbone dans les sols et réchauffement climatique”. [Online].
7. Équiterre. “Réduire la dépendance à l’égard des pesticides synthétiques : favoriser une agriculture plus résiliente au moyen d’une approche transitionnelle”, [Online], 2017.