There are more and more gluten-free products on store shelves these days, which is good news for Zenneth Faye’s two daughters. Their intolerance to gluten was a factor in their father’s decision to look at growing gluten-free oats three years ago on his farm near Foam Lake, Saskatchewan.
Faye also had a piece of land which he was taking out of hay production, which was ideal for a gluten-free oat crop as he hadn’t grown any cereals on it for at least eight years.
Cereals containing gluten, such as wheat and barley, are the biggest issue for gluten-free oat producers. For a farmer growing gluten-free oats, the highest priority is avoiding contamination. Faye likens it to being a seed grower. Meticulous cleaning of seeding and harvesting equipment, grain trucks and bins is necessary.
Farmers can only plant gluten-free oats on land that has not grown wheat or barley for at least three years, and the tolerance for contamination is extremely tight. “If the company you are contracting your gluten-free oats with finds one kernel of gluten cereal in a two pound sample they will reject it,” says Faye. “That’s basically one wheat or barley kernel in an ice cream pail of oats.”
Keeping equipment clean is vital, including the seeding equipment. “If you come from a field of wheat you may have some kernels on the frame of the seeder that could shake off when you come into your oat field,” says Faye. “Even if you had no cereal on that field for the last three years, if you’d spilled some wheat seed in that area when you filled the seeder prior to that you will more than likely find seeds germinating there for several years, so you have to be careful not to spill anything,” says Faye. “Same when you are cleaning out the combine in the field, you have to make sure it’s not in a place where it could cause contamination three years down the road.”
Augers, combines, trucks and bins all need to be swept and vacuumed for every gluten kernel. Faye likes to make sure his gluten-free crop is completely ripe before he goes to harvest it. “You have to aggressively clean and flush out the harvesting equipment and harvest is a very busy time, so having to stop when you are going from one field to the gluten free field is a lot of work. Then if you go to try it and if it’s not ready yet so you go back to something else, you have to do that cleaning it all over again.”
Some growers, says Faye, have equipment and bins specifically dedicated to gluten-free oats to avoid this intensive cleaning, but there is an additional cost either way.
“Most processors pay a premium — usually around 50 per cent more,” says Faye, “but they often won’t take delivery for several months. With one company we had to store the oats for a year. There’s added cost and I am bearing all the risk for that crop until they take it.”
The Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) certifies processors, but they are regulated a little differently than a primary elevator. The main difference, says Catherine Jaworski of the CGC, is that if producers choose to challenge the grade or dockage that is assessed by the elevator manager, the CGC’s assessment is not binding on a process elevator, as it is with a primary elevator. The quality characteristics that the processor requires should be set out in the production contract. “When you deliver the first load into the processor make sure you get the unload grade and dockage before delivering your next load to ensure they are grading it the way you expected,” adds Jaworksi.
Faye had to get the land certified where he grows his gluten-free crops. He rotates with a pulse, forage or oilseed crop. The processor provides a list of acceptable oat varieties. The agronomy is basically the same as for conventional oats. “We usually seed a little heavier, but the fertility and the chemical weed control is the same,” says Faye.
Options for pre-harvest management have recently changed. Major oat processor, Grain Millers, will no longer accept any oats that have received a pre-harvest application of glyphosate, due to concerns that it may affect the functionality of the oats during processing. “We rarely used glyphosate as a desiccant for oats because our fields usually ripen fairly evenly,” says Faye. “But we have used it for in-crop weed control in other crops. It’s a case of when you spray it. I think as long as people use it when they’re supposed to it’s not as big an issue.”
Faye suggests growers trying gluten-free oats make it a small part of their overall production. He’s not convinced there will always be a strong demand. Faye says he saw the gluten free market peak a couple of years ago and now it seems to have levelled off. Time will tell whether gluten free is a fad or a reality.