Milling oats finding niche in East Idaho

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John O’Connell

Capital Press

BANCROFT, Idaho — Because milling oat prices have held strong while other grains have dropped in value, Wade Clark sees an opportunity this winter to significantly expand his small pool of local oat growers.

Clark runs the Alexander Co. oat mill in Bancroft, processing about a million pounds of the fiber-rich commodity per week.

Buying more of his supply regionally would help Clark reduce freight costs. As it stands, his four Caribou County growers raise enough oats annually to supply his mill for about six weeks. The rest of his oats are shipped from Canada.

With the return for milling oats at about $12 per hundredweight — not counting a $3 bonus for product free of foreign materials and considered gluten-free — Clark believes he’ll have a strong sales pitch this winter for prospective growers in the Soda Springs, Blackfoot and Idaho Falls areas.

“For our milling market, the price is still up there, and I don’t see that changing,” Clark said. “The overall demand for (milling) oats is gradually increasing, and we’re not seeing a lot more acres coming in from Canada.”

Milling oats remain a niche market in Idaho, where USDA reports 70,000 acres were planted this season and only 15,000 acres were harvested for grain. Most oat acres are baled for hay or grazed as pasture. Oat grain markets include human food products and race horse feed.

Clark may also sell oats to his son, Jeremiah, who plans to package them as a breakfast cereal, marketed directly to retailers.

Nationally, 2.723 million oat acres were planted this season, down from 2.98 million acres. USDA reported Idaho’s average yield, at 91 bushels per acre, was up from 73 bushels per acre.

Clark said there are fewer than 10 oat mills in the U.S., with the nearest mills in Honeyville, Utah, and Eugene, Ore. His mill processes oats for a Vancouver, Wash., business, Cereal Byproducts, which handles grower contracting.

Cereal Byproducts Vice President Dave Sanders said oats should be raised under irrigation to meet his company’s specifications. His oat business has slowly grown during the past five years as farmers have discovered rotational benefits of the crop, which lends organic matter for no-till fields and mellows soil for subsequent potato crops.

“It gives growers another arrow in their quiver as far as rotation,” Sanders said, adding when hay prices are high, growers have flexibility to bale oats.

Grace, Idaho, farmer Travis Gilbert likes milling oats as a high-elevation crop and believes modern varieties are hardier and better fit for his environment than past oat varieties. Gilbert, who raised 200 oat acres this season, plants two consecutive oat crops after potatoes, finding oats thrive on carryover nitrogen from spuds and it’s easier to meet gluten-free status if he raises no other cereals in those fields.

His oats have yielded up to 150 bushels per acre, well above his malt barley yields, and his contract for gluten-free oats this season was $16 per hundredweight.

“Where our season is so short, these oats have been a great addition to our rotation, and they give you a pretty good return on your investment,” Gilbert said.