Just a few years ago, oat researchers feared that the crop might disappear from North American fields.
However, desperate action and a rare case of co-operation is now leading them to think they have not only stopped oats’ disappearance but caught up to wheat and barley breeders.
“The oat community was so far down, we were losing people like crazy, so we really had to band together and when we did we became a real force,” said General Mills researcher Joe Lutz, who has been part of the network that formed in 2008.
Farmers have almost stopped growing quality milling oats in the United States because booming corn and soybean yields have made them more attractive.
Wheat and barley, the cereals closest to oats, have not seen the same gains in productivity but are bigger crops that have more developed and better financed breeding programs.
However, oat breeders like Lutz started casually sharing knowledge and resources in 2008.
General Mills, which makes Cheerios, funded a small collaborative project and researchers and won a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to continue working together.
Other food manufacturers and millers joined, as did the Prairie Oat Growers Association, and researchers from a number of companies, universities and research institutes began sharing information.
“We really don’t have that many oat breeders left, but the silver lining of that cloud is that they’re working really closely together,” said Jim Bair, vice-president of the North American Millers Association.
“Some work is only being done in Louisiana, some work is only being done in Illinois, and some work is only being done in Saskatchewan and Manitoba,” he said in an interview during the Prairie Oat Growers Association annual convention in Winnipeg.
“They all talk and share data and they all share materials.”
Lutz told the conference that most small grain research is slower than corn or soybean development because of the “hexaploid problem,” which is a product of the complex molecular nature of cereals such as oats and wheat.
However, the co-operative research has allowed them to crack that problem.
“We think we have a really effective set of markers,” Lutz said
The desperation that drove oat researchers to band together has brought them level with wheat and barley researchers, who generally work in separate programs and aren’t nearly as collaborative.
“They’re not really working together,” he said.
Bair said millers always worry about oat production in North America because the growing region has become so small and the producer base so limited.
“We need the oats,” he said.
“As we continue to see the shift out of oats and into corn and soybeans in the northern plains, the crop up here will grow in importance.”
As a result, he’s hoping the research at General Mills, Quaker Oats, universities and institutes continues.
“We think it’s a model going forward of how research should be conducted, rather than be duplicative and have the same things done in a number of locations.
“It makes sense to have the best people doing what they are best at and not being protective of particular programs and not helping each other. It’s too important for that.”
The $1.7 million in funding for the collaborative work runs out in 2012- 13, and Lutz hopes more money can be found.
“It’s possible that the funding could run out and everyone would go their separate ways,” he said.