The Old Ones: the landrace oats of America

By David Shields and Zoe Nicholson

 The Hulless Oat

The Hulless Oat

Oats. These humble, reliable, and hearty field grains aren’t typically heralded as classic American crops, but they rank among the highest producing cereals of 2018. They are steeped in the agricultural history of our nation, and, in a way, can help us to trace our various paths through the Atlantic and Pacific to America. Traditionally we imagine oats to be white, and visualize them being used for meal, bread, and beer—culinary oats. But there are non-white oats—black, gray and red—that have long been exiled from the popular imagination; in the 1800s these were favored for livestock feed.

The old segregation of white “human oats” and colored “animal oats” are from fears of spoilage; discoloration would reveal contamination with ergot or other dangerous pathogens, and discoloration could be seen readily on white oats.  Yet the colored varieties of landrace oats possess the same slightly sweet, commonly wholesome flavor of the white culinary oats. But in our age of modern technology and sufficient refrigeration, this separation is no longer needed.

The livestock varieties also have an added benefit. Because these black, red, and grey landraces had been selected over centuries to provide hearty sustenance to livestock, their protein profiles far exceed the modern commodity oats (typically averaging 17.5%) bred in the last century. One such oat, the Winter Turf Oat, was bred specifically for race horses: literally, fuel for speed. A bowl of oatmeal for breakfast is intended to energize for a day; a bowl of Winter Turf Oats would be like that same bowl of oatmeal, plus a pair of Red Bulls. 

These landrace oats aren’t lost or extinct, but have been relatively well-preserved thanks to the USDA Small Grains repository. Since they proved sturdy, successful crops, many of these oat varieties also served as parents for many selections of new varieties of grains in the late 9th and early 20th  centuries. No landrace oat in North America is an indigenous crop, all were imported. Since spoilage is now a non-issue when considering landrace oats, let’s explore the varieties of colored oats that have been left out for the livestock for too long:

The Barley Oat

Found in a potato field in Cumberland, England in 1788, the barley oat—or the potato oat—was a major crop in the English-speaking world during the early 1800s. In the 1860s, agronomists believed that hundreds of millions of bushels of the oat had all descended from the single plant found in Cumberland the century before (“The Potato Oat,” Lake Superior Miner. July 18, 1868. 4). A short, white, and heavy grain, the barley oat was harvested green and sufficiently survived storm winds. It yielded high amounts (70-75 grains per head and about 50 bushels per acre) and contained high amounts of protein. Where the average white oat is of between 17-17.5 percent protein makeup, the Barley Oat is 21 percent. Another bonus, it was a favorite with livestock, meaning its tough texture was a non-issue. The oat lacks an awn, making it easy to process. The USDA maintains several lines, more information can be found here.

White Tartarian Oat 

When it the unilateral panicle grain was imported from Europe in the early 19th century, it was primarily being cultivated in France, not Russia or Siberia. A sturdy variety, the White Tartarian resists stem rust and its late maturation made it a popular field crop in the Northern U.S. and Canada during the latter part of the 19th century. The strain was particularly useful in the Midwest, where it was able to withstand prairie winds. According to an article from The Cultivator in 1856, the white tartarian “will produce large crops on light soils,” making it a popular livestock feed choice (“Experiments with Oats.” The Cultivator. April 1856. 110). The sweetness of the grain made for suitable “dry fodder” for horses and cattle (Henry Stephens, The Farmer’s Guide to Scientific and Practical Agriculture. New York:1851. 449). More information of the White Tartarian here.

The Winter Turf Oat

  N.J. Willet Seed , Augusta, Georgia, 1915.

N.J. Willet Seed, Augusta, Georgia, 1915.

Also known as the Virginia Grey Oat, this landrace oat was famed for tilling profusely and yielding substantial crops. Harvested in October, the longish grains was largely used for horse and cattle feed, leading it to become extremely high in protein (“On the Culture of Oats” Southern Cultivator. May 1852. 134).  Used in America at least by 1762, it was planted in the fall by George Washington himself, as recorded in his diary. The hardiest of all landrace oats in North America, it’s late maturity ensured the oat was “much better than ordinary spring oats for feed” (“Winter Turf Oats.” Coleman’s Rural World. August 27, 1902. 8).  By the early 20th Century, the variety ceased to be a primary southern cultivation, but it became an important genetic resource in breeding the century’s winter oat varieties. More information here.

Red Oat

Also known as the Rustproof oat, the red oat was the second winter oat grown in North America after its arrival in 1849 (The Winter Turf being the first). A product of war, the red oat was introduced in the South by a soldier returning from the Mexican War. Originated in the Mexican highlands, the red rust-resistant oat provided small, tender, and tasty straw for livestock, primarily in Georgia and the Carolinas (“The Red Oat” Raleigh Observer. June 14, 1877. 2). In these areas, particularly those that had become exhausted from cotton cultivation, the red oat could generate 20 bushels with ease. Its resistance to rust, or puccinia coronata, made it a highly valuable crop, especially since the disease it was mostly immune to devastated crops globally. Because of this asset, the red oat became a resource for breeders in the 20th century looking to impart the oat’s rust-resistance onto more productive oat varieties (Franklin Arthur Coffman. “Oat History” Identification and Classification USDA Agricultural Research Service Bulletin, 1516. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1977, 58). Because of its usefulness, the red oat, a native of the Mexican hills and a staple in the Southeast, has remained in germplasm banks around the world. More information here.

Black Tartarian Oat

Also called the Siberian oat, this “old black oat” was a widely cultivated long straw grain of average quality. Its upside? The grain produced 100 bushels per acre. The landrace thrived in the “peaty, marshy soils” of the Southeast—think Piedmont bottoms, Carolina bays, and coastal floodplains. An Eastern Ukraine native, the landrace was introduced to British fields in the early 19th Century before making its way to the States in the 1840s. High in protein, it is made up of about 21.5 percent protein. Its use wasn’t relegated to the Southeast, however. The black tartarian proved popular in some northern states, especially new York. Usually black or brown, the “thin and rather small” grains were used as fodder (“The Oat” Genesee Farmer. March 1838). More information here.

Hulless Oat

An oat of many names—the naked oat, peel oat, pellowes oat— this ancient Indo-European landrace, also called the Skinless Oat and the Peelcorn, is thought to be the original “bread corn” of the British Isles. Found as early as 1597 in writing, when John Gerhard included it in his famous English Herbal guide, the Hulless oat is known primarily for its field hardiness (“Skinless Oats” The Genesee Farmer. February 4, 1832, 33). While it probably the least productive of the livestock field oats listed here, it generated ample straw for the Americans in the 19th century—and was high in protein (22 percent). Its long history meant many Americans imported the grain in the 1830s, leading to a number of rumors about the Skinless Oat’s origin: China, Siberia, and England to name a few. The oat is grown all the over the globe, and has been grown in Anglo-America since the 18th century. While it is susceptible to smut, it’s easy to mill and produces a high amount of protein. According to many, the taste of the Skinless Oat is as well-rounded as its ancient history. More information on the Hulless Oat here.

The livestock landrace oats are uncharted culinary ingredients, and their availability means they are ripe for the cultivating. While the culinary benefits are exciting, the historical impact of the landrace oats remind us that the agricultural and culinary history of America didn’t completely originate on this soil. It was a culmination of many cultures, many crops, and many methods that created the great American diet.

 The Oat Cake           

The Oat Cake           

And what better way to sample one this unknown aspect of the American agricultural history than with an oat cake? Oats, water, salt cooked crispy. There is something substantial, satisfying, and texturally proper about a classic oat cake. It is the one preparation where you can encounter, unadorned, the natural splendor of an oat. It is the food par excellence in which the virtues of the old heirloom oats shine.