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RISING HUMAN CONSUMPTION OF OATS LEADS TO CONTRACTS FOR GRAIN PRODUCERS IN IDAHO

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Recent consumer interest in the health benefits of oats is good news to grain producers seeking an alternative crop.

Since 1983, human consumption of oats has risen 53 percent. But imports have supplemented domestic production, which has been inadequate because of last year's drought and a federal farm program that has discouraged oat production, farm economists say.Last year, Quaker Oats Co. experimented with Idaho Oat production by offering contracts for about 1,000 acres in the eastern part of the state.

This year, the company has expanded that to 10,000 acres, or a million bushels, in contracts offered through grain elevators in Ashton, Blackfoot, Idaho Falls and Burley. Idaho producers have snapped them up.

"People are looking for a viable alternative crop, and this seems to be the one," said James Whitmore, superintendent of the University of Idaho's agricultural research center in Tetonia, where foundation oat seed is produced.

The center has sold all of its foundation oat seed for this year, but supplies of certified and registered seed available through growers should be adequate, Whitmore said.

Growers are "hoping for a future in oat production and want to be in on the ground floor," said Dan Wallace, assistant manager of Modern Mills Rockford Inc. in Rockford.

Idaho growers normally plant between 30,000 and 60,000 acres of oats each year, compared with more than 1 million acres each of wheat and barley, according to Idaho Agricultural Statistics Service estimates. But those oats have been used primarily for livestock feed.

Sam Weaver, Quaker's director of crop research and development in Chicago, said the company had several reasons for interest in Idaho, despite the distance from its processing plants in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and St. Joseph, Mo.

He said the company is impressed by the "phenomenally high grain yields and excellent quality" achieved in oat trials in Aberdeen, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service and the UI College of Agriculture have been involved for decades in developing superior oat varieties.

Protein levels in the 1,000 acres contracted in 1988 averaged around 17 to 17.5 percent, which is above Quaker Oats' minimum requirements, Weaver said. Test weights were high, and moisture and contamination levels were low.

The interest in oat production would be enhanced by changes in federal farm policy, said Paul Patterson, extension economist for the UI College of Agriculture in Idaho Falls. The current target price for oats in the federal program has discouraged their production, with farmers instead favoring wheat and corn, he said.

The 1985 farm program was developed when most farmers who produced oats grew them for their own livestock.