Oats aren’t the sexiest ingredient. The beige, bland, and, some might say, boring, gluten-free grain is most commonly served as oatmeal. Even the American Heart Association refers to the mush as “a total nerd” on its website.
But humble and hearty oats rank among the rock stars of grains. In fact, simple, stick-to-your-ribs, high-in-fiber oats, also rich in vitamins and minerals, are one of the most healthful grains in the world. And Washington state was once among the country’s top producers.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, oats (Avena sativa) were western Washington’s dominant small-grain crop. Yields were so plentiful in 1876 that several farmers published oaths attesting to their high numbers. The US Commissioner of Agriculture, in 1882, noted, “Washington Territory heads the list of oats producing States.”
Since then, global and national oat production has significantly dropped. And nowhere has the decline been “more dramatically manifested than in western Washington,” where oats have been “virtually abandoned,” according to Washington State University researchers who wrote “The History of Oats in Western Washington and the Evolution of Regionality in Agriculture.” The 2016 study—written by Stephen S. Jones, director of the WSU Breadlab, along with Louisa R. (Winkler) Brouwer (’17 PhD Crop Sci.) and Kevin M. Murphy (’04 MS, ’07 PhD Crop Sci.)—appeared in the Journal of Rural Studies.
“I used to get phone calls all the time asking if you can grow oats in Skagit Valley,” Jones says. “When I told them we were, at one time, the ‘oat capital of the world,’ they couldn’t believe it.”
A member of the grass family, oats are believed to have originated from western Asia and eastern Europe. Evidence suggests Paleolithic hunter-gatherers ate wild oats approximately 32,000 years ago in what’s now southern Italy, and Neolithic people cultivated them some 11,000 years ago in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. Ancient Romans widely grew oats as animal feed.
A cool-weather crop, oats grow well in moist conditions with well-drained soil. They’ve been a staple in Scotland since early medieval times and in Switzerland since the late medieval era. They were first planted in North America—on Cuttyhunk Island off the Massachusetts coast—in 1602 by English privateer Bartholomew Gosnold.
They became a major American crop, largely grown for horse feed and, before 1850, were mostly cultivated east of the Mississippi River. Pioneers brought them westward. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were at least five oat mills in western Washington—in Tacoma, on San Juan Island, near Anacortes, and in Mount Vernon as well as La Conner.
Around that time, oats were gaining popularity as a wholesome breakfast food. American doctor John Harvey Kellogg promoted what he called “granula,” or granola, in the late 1870s; his version featured twice-baked, unleavened, wheat-and-oat bread. Quaker Oats registered its trademark in 1877, and by 1885, oats were being sold in boxes.
Best-selling writer Marion Harland noted in her 1903 Complete Cook Book, “Oatmeal builds up bone, and muscle, and brain.” Along with other cereals, it “should be eaten with cream, and except as a dessert, never with sugar.” Oats also required “a great deal” of cooking. “Soaking overnight is indispensable… Four hours of boiling make oatmeal good; eight hours make it better; twenty-four hours make it ‘best.’”
Thinner “Quick Oats” debuted in 1922, “Instant Quaker Oatmeal” in 1966, and the first flavored instant oatmeal—maple and brown sugar—in 1970.
By then, oats were already in decline in western Washington and around the country. Harvest peaked in the Puget Sound region in the 1920s and decreased steadily from the mid-twentieth century. By 1997, western Washington oats hovered around 1,700 acres, down from some 60,000. The US Department of Agriculture stopped recording the region’s oat statistics in 2009; output was simply too low.
“We won’t see a resurgence in oats as Americans just don’t eat them like we used to. And much of the oats here went to workhorses, which are by and large gone,” Jones says. “Oats also take an additional step of dehulling prior to using, which adds to the cost of processing. They also don’t store well as they, unlike wheat, can go rancid fairly quickly if they are not processed.”
Since 1960, American oat production has dropped more than 90 percent. American oat acreage peaked in 1921 at 45.5 million; in 2021, it totaled 650,000. The US produced its highest amount—1.5 billion bushels—in 1945; that dropped to under 40 million bushels by 2021.
Most of today’s US crop comes from the Midwest. The oats in your Cheerios likely come from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada.
While US oat consumption is also down from 1960, it has remained fairly steady for the past 20 years. In spring 2020, early into the COVID-19 pandemic, Google searches for “rolled oats” and “oat milk” spiked. Oat milk is still having a moment; US retail sales increased by 50 percent, to $527.44 million, from June 2021 to June 2022.
Studies associate oats with lowering cholesterol and aiding weight control. One cup of cooked oatmeal has just 166 calories.
Of course, oatmeal cookies have more. Other culinary uses include granola, muffins, meatloaf, and more.
“From a culinary point,” Jones says, “I prefer them in Scottish oat cakes and other pastry uses.”
Farmers binding oats on Lopez Island—early 1900s (Courtesy Lopez Island Historical Society)
Small Grains 2021 Summary (USDA recent statistics, PDF)
Landrace oats in America (Carolina Gold Rice Foundation)
“Naked oats” in Sequim (Peninsula Daily News, 2008)
A fresh look at oatmeal (American Heart Association)
“Granula” vs “granola” (The Food Historian)
Glass in your oats? Yes, in the form of a teacup! (Atlas Obscura)