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Naked oats undress the market

AC Gehl is the only truly naked (or bald) oat currently available in Canada, and should not be confused with other hulless oat varieties, which still have fine hairs (trichomes) that can cause skin, respiratory and eye irritation during harvesting, handling and processing.

AC Gehl does not require de-hulling and sorting as do traditional oats, making it excellent for the food processing industry. It also has much less bulk than regular oats as the hulls, which detach during the harvesting operation, remain in the field, which helps lower transportation and storage costs for growers and processors.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientists, led by Dr. Vern Burrows, developed AC Gehl over a 15-year period, which began with a painstaking assessment of over 20,000 oat seeds from all over the world, only one of which had the desirable bald trait that the team was looking for.

“This is a fantastic example of why we need to fund public breeding programs,” says Scott Sigvaldason, the Arborg-area farmer who spearheaded the registration and commercialization of AC Gehl. “A private company would never have developed something like this because there was no established market for it. Without public breeding programs coming up with some of this baseline research I think there are a lot of things would never see the light of day.”

Sigvaldason began growing naked oats in 2005, when he was searching for fresh hulless oat seed to replace his aging seed stock. He realised during the first harvest of this new, naked oat variety that he had something very unique. He’d been told by Dave Gehl of AAFC’s Indian Head research facility, who had provided him the naked oat seed to try, that it was a completely hairless variety. Having spent years growing hulless varieties and developing systems to process them to a standardized format, Sigvaldason was sceptical that AC Gehl would not still require the same processing to remove irritating trichomes. He decided to give the variety the acid test right off the combine.

“As I got to the end of the last swath I jumped off the combine and ran to the back and opened my shirt up while the combine was still blowing out the last of the oats,” says Sigvaldason. “I didn’t want to tear my skin off, so I knew right then that I had something special.”

Six years on, Sigvaldason is trying to make these naked oats, which he markets under the brand Cavenu Nuda, a household name. Through his appearances on TV (including an episode of Dragon’s Den in 2009), radio interviews and various articles in many national newspapers, he has managed to build up distribution from coast to coast. Another exciting development for Cavena Nuda is that Prairie Co-op stores will soon be carrying it. The quintessential Prairie grocery chain, Federated Co-operatives Ltd., will be stocking Cavena Nuda in its 45 largest stores, but any Co-op store can bring it in anywhere in the west, making it available in most rural communities across Western Canada.

He is also getting a lot of interest from the food service industry, with major hotel chain chefs increasingly demanding the product, which was also served to world leaders at the G-20 Summit in Toronto in summer 2010. He is currently developing a cooked, frozen version in association with the Food Development Centre at Portage la Prairie, which would be used by hospitals and health other care facilities.

Cavenu Nuda is also known as “Rice of the Prairies.” It cooks essentially in much the same way as brown rice does and is highly versatile and nutritious. Naked oats have twice the protein, 10 times the fibre and five times the iron of white rice. With high levels of beta glucan and anti-oxidants, it can help lower cholesterol. Naked oats also have a low glycemic index, making them excellent for diabetics, and are registered as gluten-free.

The market potential for the product is tremendous, says Sigvaldason, whose aim is to displace white rice in people’s diets and turn Canada into a “rice” exporting nation. “What we do is we grow and process oats but we sell ‘rice,’” he says. “Anybody that eats rice in the world could be eating this instead. So that’s the market, it’s worldwide. It’s a rice replacement product but it also can be used in applications that rice never could.”

The high protein level and gluten-free status are things that make growing naked oats a little more challenging for farmers. Under the terms of the contract, growers have to insure that naked oats are grown on clean fields. “It has to be grown on a field that has gone at least three years without any wheat, rye, barley or any gluten-containing grain,” says Sigvaldason. “There’s a lot of wheat in the soil just waiting for the right day to wake up and that’s just a fact.”

He says that many farmers choose to grow it on land that is being broken after being in alfalfa or pasture for a number of years. “That kind of land is usually very clean,” he says. “Or it can be grown after soybeans, corn, canola, those are fine. Oats are even fine, it’s easy to separate regular oats from naked oats, but it’s very difficult to separate wheat.”

Even after taking these precautions, Sigvaldson still loses on, average, 40 to 50 per cent of the oat kernels after cleaning to remove any trace of wheat or other cereals that have persisted in the seed bank of the field.

Comparative trials of hulless and naked oats varieties are ongoing at test plots across Manitoba at Arborg, Warren, Beausejour, Melita and Roblin. Data from the 2009 growing season shows that hulless oat varieties generally yield 20 to 25 per cent less than hulled varieties, largely because the lack of hulls reduce weights. Sigvaldason says that they average 3,000 to 3,600 lbs. per acre with naked oats, and cautions farmers to remember that the grain is much heavier (20 to 25 per cent) than regular oats due to the reduction in bulk from the hulls. “Many guys harvesting it for the first time are thinking, this is oats, I am supposed to be overflowing every round, but it’s like harvesting a 50 to 60 bushel wheat crop” he says. “But don’t fill the truck too full or you’ll get stuck in the field.”

The protein level must also be between 16 and 18 per cent, which means that naked oats have to be fertilized in much the same way as wheat. “We like that high protein so it’s got to be treated like you are trying to grow high protein No. 1 wheat,” says Sigvaldason. “And that’s from fertility to harvest. You don’t leave it as the last thing to take off the field, you treat it like that’s your most valuable crop. Although it weathers reasonably well, it’s the top grade stuff that we need. And there’s premiums paid for that.”

Another recommendation for producers at harvest time is that, since there is no hull to protect the oat kernel of the naked oat, they should adjust threshing cylinder speeds and concaves to try and prevent damage.

Some producers have been reluctant to fertilize more heavily because of the fear of lodging, which is a problem in regular, hulled oats. But trials underway in Manitoba have shown that lodging is not as much of a problem with hulless or naked oats, and Sigvaldason’s own experience bears out these findings. “A lot of guys will skimp on the fertility for oats because they don’t want it to lodge,” he says. “This doesn’t lodge.”

Sigvaldason also employs minimal use of inputs to try and produce as natural a product as possible. Although he still uses herbicides, he prefers that they not be used after the six inch growth stage so that there is no residue. He also finds that herbicides are not generally necessary after this stage. “You have to grow it on clean land anyway and if you feed it properly it’s aggressive and it really spreads quickly and outcompetes the weeds,” he says.

Fungicides, says Sigvaldason, are neither desirable nor necessary. “You are just wasting your money with fungicide, you don’t need to use them,” he says. Naked oats have proven to be highly disease resistant, especially to rust. “In 2009 I was growing a seed plot and there were puddles where it had drowned out and right on the edge of the water there was quack grass covered in rust, and it even had some ergot in the heads,” says Sigvaldason. “Right beside that was the naked oats, with big wide leaves like a corn plant and no rust all the way up the stem and the leaves were completely clean.”

For the time being Sigvaldason is concentrating on getting Cavena Nuda into retail stores and building up the name to become better known. It’s crucial to keep developing the market, he says, so that production growth can keep pace and retain the integrity of the brand and ensure that it will always be a premium product for farmers to grow. “We have to grow the market first,” he says. “If a bunch of people started growing it all at once, before we have grown a market, we would end up flooding the market with a bunch of stuff that had no saleability and the quality would be all over the place,” he says. “That would end up being a complete disaster and we wouldn’t have this premium market that we could sell into all over the world.”

For more info on Cavena Nuda, go to the website at www.mysmartfoods.com. †

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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