“Dear folks at the Weston A. Price Foundation,” began the handwritten letter. “This year we grew a crop of oats on our farm, thinking to have our breakfast cereal homegrown. However, we have found that it is very difficult to get the hulls off the oats. Do you have any suggestions for on-farm milling of oats?” The request for help sounded reasonable enough: how does one mill common oats at home to remove the tenacious husks so that the grain can be used for human food or even as feed for chickens and young stock? The grain can be taken to the local mill to be processed, but there didn’t seem to be any small mills available for the homestead (except at great investment and then “small” was only relative to the prairie-sized commercial operations). And those hulls really need to be removed; some homesteaders who’ve tried to mill common oats by makeshift means have found themselves eating oatmeal with hull remnants reminiscent of fingernails in it.
Although small mills, along with small farms, used to dot the countryside of America a generation or two ago, they are now largely relics of an almost lost way of life. Speaking with old-time homesteaders on the subject of milling oats serendipitously brought up memories of grandparents who raised two kinds of oats, one for use in the home, and one for the animals. On the scent of a solution from Nature’s bounty, it was only a short matter of time to uncover an answer that had quietly been there all along: naked oats. Generally considered to have originated in Eurasia, the oat species, Avena sativa, was domesticated relatively late in human history, some 2,100 years ago. Now grown throughout the temperate zone, oats are characterized by a short growing period and wide adaptation to different types of soil, climates and ecological conditions. In China today oats are most often grown in the northern regions and throughout Inner Mongolia, where numerous species and subspecies of wild oats are also found. Though the climate is harsh in the high altitude of Tibet, oats grow in all parts of this mountainous country as well, and wild types of oats are also commonly seen. In contrast to other oat-producing countries, however, the predominant form of oats grown in China has been the hulless variety, Avena nuda, or naked oats.
EASY TO THRESH Naked oats, so called because the kernels thresh free of the hulls, have been grown for centuries by farmers who enjoy the advantages of an oat variety that can be fed to young stock and poultry without being milled or ground, as hulled oats must be, and can also be easily used as porridge or other food for humans. The nutrition profile of naked oats is quite impressive, with contributions rich in minerals and vitamins and a fat content rivaling that of corn, along with high-quality protein similar to that found in soybeans. This is especially fortunate for farmers living in areas where both corn and soybeans have not been traditionally suited for growing, or for homesteaders who prefer not to grow them at all. Naked oats also supply unsaturated fatty acids that contribute to the production of higher quality eggs, milk and meat products. Farmers cut the oats just as they are forming seed heads to feed cattle as green chop. When this green chop is fed to dairy animals, the quantity and quality of the butterfat in their milk rises significantly. Hay can also be made from oat grass at about the same stage with immature seed heads, which ruminants relish, and non-ruminants find palatable and nourishing as well. Keeping a supply of oat hay over the winter provides an insurance against a slow spring at altitudes where winterkill may delay the availability of fresh pasture for grazing animals. FROM AMERICA TO CHINA Although it is unclear when naked oats were first introduced to Europe, colonists arriving to the New World brought seed stock with them from home that included several varieties no longer commonly grown here.
John Josselyn, a chronicler of early life in the colonies, wrote in 1671 about silpee cultivated in New England (also called pilcorn or peelcorn), which was Avena nuda. Wheat did not thrive in the early years, and some settlers thought corn more suitable for cattle, so their reliance on naked oats was considerable. Josselyn described a dish much favored by the settlers made from oatmeal, sugar, spices and “a pottle of milk” (a pottle was two quarts). New Hampshire settlers had their own version of oatmeal porridge called “sowens,” made from naked oats in which the oatmeal was ground, sifted and left to ferment in water, then boiled to a jelly. Naked oats were cultivated as a staple cereal by the Chinese up until three decades ago, although recent introduction of hulled varieties of oats from western countries has resulted in an equal proportion of hulled oats production in the last ten years, with predictions that hulled varieties will soon outstrip the hulless. The reason for this lies in the same trend now circling the globe: mass production of cultivars that perform best in behemoth monoculture agricultural methods. TROUBLESOME Naked oats find themselves in the same category of “troublesome” plant food as the heirloom tomato with thin, easily bruised skin, but stunning flavor and zest, or delicate forest strawberries that couldn’t survive half an hour off the stem.
Naked oats don’t give as high a yield per acre as hulled varieties, and are not suited for the input of synthetic fertilizers typical of formulas used in hulled oat cultivation. In fact, they grow more poorly with applications of nitrogen, for example. Further, the hulless oat tends to shatter when harvested using large-scale mechanical reapers, and their oils can be damaged in the high heat buildup typical of million-bushel grain storage silos. Naked oats are just not suited for mass applications, but would be a wonderfully useful addition to the diversity of plant foods on a small farmstead, just as they were always utilized by small farmers in the past. For the modern homesteader, naked oats are just the ticket for a hardy, nutritious foodstuff for both animals and humans, and obviate the need for milling before use. Use of naked oats rather than soybeans as feed for poultry and swine would be a much preferred option, and cultivation of oats would easily fit into a number of crop rotation cycles. MEDICINAL USES Raising naked oats for medicinal purposes is another option that some enterprising small farmers might find attractive. Oats and oatstraw cut when seeds have formed but several weeks before they mature and then carefully dried are a long-revered source of minerals and other nutrients and alkaloids that restore nervous system health in all forms of nervous exhaustion and stress. Prepared as an infusion, oatstraw is a mild tasting restorative that can be used long term to calm nerves, tone the circulatory system and soothe digestion, along with many other benefits.
Reintroducing naked oats (and other forgotten plants) into our food supply is also another step we can take to counteract the sheer paucity of the food varieties agribusiness creates, and therewith the direct impoverishment of our diets and health. Nature’s endowment is both abundant and diverse, and we should not lose our common knowledge and direct enjoyment of this largesse in both cultivated and wild plants and fruits, medicinal and salad herbs, seeds, nuts, and roots. SOURCES Naked oat seeds are available from several good seed companies, and will be listed in their catalogues as either Avena nuda or hulless oats. (I found it amusing that when I searched for Avena nuda seed sources on Google, the only sponsored link that popped up was a site for “Free Porno Videos.”) Here are several seed sources: Johnny’s Selected Seeds, www.johnnyseeds.com, Seeds of Change, www.seedsofchange.com and Bountiful Gardens: www.bountifulgardens.org. Bountiful Gardens also sells seeds of ancient wheat species.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2006.