DRAFT Project Design to Test Opportunities for Oats in the Corn and Soybean Region of the Midwest
In early July 2015 a diverse group met in Mason City, Iowa and launched a research, outreach and investment initiative to increase opportunities for corn and soybean farmers to add oats to their rotation in order to improve their farming system. The founding group included 3 of the 4 largest oat millers in North America, the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farm Bureau, several farmers, and business representatives from the seed and livestock feeding sectors. The group concluded that a commercial opportunity exists for producers to market food grade oats and simultaneously gain ecosystem and public relations benefits.
- The long-term profitability of corn-soybean rotations could be enhanced through soil quality improvements from longer rotations.
- Water quality improvements would result from additional months of the soil covered + plants that evapo-transpirate at different times than corn and soybeans.
- Public approval of Corn Belt agriculture could improve through evidence of reduced inputs and improved water quality.
- Oats is a highly nutritional food ingredient for which there is market demand from US mills now sourcing most oats from Canada.
- The loss of oat acres near mills reduces the flexibility of millers’ supply chains and could increase costs in some years because of transport costs.
- Without sophisticated breeding and production systems, farmers can’t take advantage of market opportunities for high quality food grade oats.
- The loss of varieties adapted to the Midwest as well as the lack of sophisticated production systems have reduced farmers’ ability to profit when they grow small grains in the corn/soy rotation.
- Because of reduced production and marketing opportunities, corn and soy farmers miss pest and weed control benefits that small grain crops provide.
- Increased adoption of cool season crops in rotation with corn and soybeans would substantially improve water quality across the region.
Next Steps and Coordination
The Sustainable Food Lab will continue to take responsibility for coordination of this initiative in close partnership with Practical Farmers of Iowa and guided by the Steering Committee that includes representatives of sponsoring companies. One immediate next step is raising money to organize on-farm trials and pilot supply chains for both feed and food grade oats. We will also exploring cost-sharing for small grains in rotation linked to water quality benefits.
Pending a full discussion by the Steering Committee, our sense is that before widespread communication to farmers and landowners, the first priority is to pilot, and thereby develop “proofs of concept,” for oats production and supply chains in the region around St. Ansgar (where market opportunities seem the most immediate).
- Develop and shop funding proposals for elements of this initiative to the North American Millers Association, the Walton Family Foundation and others (SFL with PFI and Grain Millers).
- Select farmer cooperators, particularly in the St. Ansgar region, and link on-farm trials, water quality monitoring, and supply chain logistics in order to further test the feasibility of feed and food grade oats in the 2016 season (PFI with SFL and Grain Millers support).
- Put online and continually update producer oat production guides: conventional (Grain Millers lead) and organic (Margaret Smith, ISU, lead) to include production, storage, and marketing information.
- Design and conduct on-farm research trials (PFI lead and include ISA On-Farm Network) certified versus bin-run seed; with and without fungicide; variety comparison; rotation economics.
- Conduct research on water quality benefits of small grains in a corn and soybean landscape (who?): conduct a review of the literature, collect new data where gaps, add water quality data to NRS, WQI and explore state cost share for extended rotation.
- Support participants in the initiative to develop a system analysis and shared visuals of the opportunities and challenges of small grains in the feed supply chain (SFL with Margaret Smith, ISU).
- Do outreach to growers and landowners (PFI, ?) articles, field days and conference workshops.
- Continue to support the Steering Committee and other initiative participants through continual communications, measurable goals for the initiative, and a shared way of measuring progress toward those goals (SFL).
 See “Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health” by Davis, Hill, Chase, Johanns, and Liebman; 2012