Louisa R. (Winkler) Brouwer (’17 PhD Crop Sci.) was one of three researchers at Washington State University who collaborated on “The History of Oats in Western Washington and the Evolution of Regionality in Agriculture.”

The 2016 study—written by Brouwer along with crop scientists Stephen S. Jones, director of the WSU Breadlab, and Kevin M. Murphy (’04 MS, ’07 PhD Crop Sci.)—appeared in the Journal of Rural Studies.

It was a precursor to her dissertation: “Building the Genetic, Agronomic and Economic Foundations for Expansion of Oat Cultivation in Western Washington.”

Recently, she discussed her work and oats with Washington State Magazine.


What got you interested in oats in western Washington?

I worked on oats in my agriculture research role in the United Kingdom prior to moving to the US for graduate school at WSU. I worked for the UK’s Organic Research Center, and my team was part of a consortium testing oat varieties in organic and conventional farming systems so better varieties could be developed. I fell in love with the crop at that time; the oat plant is so beautiful and the grain is extremely nutritious and has various healing properties. On starting my research at WSU, I was encouraged by my major adviser, Dr. Steve Jones, to look into the history of oat production in western Washington. Dr. Jones has a strong interest in history and knew that oats had once been a very important crop in the region. It’s no coincidence that oats thrive both in western Washington and the United Kingdom: we have similar temperate climates with high rainfall.

Many people in modern-day western Washington would be surprised to learn it was once top oat-growing area. What do you think? What’s your experience?

Agreed. I have surprised a lot of people by telling them about the important status oats once had in western Washington agriculture! Nowadays, small grain crops are a tough proposition in the region because their margins are relatively low, while land rents and other costs of production have climbed steeply. In the past, however, oats were a more sought-after commodity; in particular because they are a good horse feed, and agriculture prior to WWII was powered by horses.

What are the chances that we would see such high levels of oats grown again in the region?

The economic environment in our region has changed so much that it’s unlikely oats will ever be grown on significant acreages in the region again. Demand for their grain will never be so high as when they were a horse feed, and meanwhile, oat milling infrastructure has consolidated and moved out of the region, so farmers wishing to sell oats into the food-grain supply chain have to transport them much further.

Is it possible to recover some of the crop?

I do believe they have potential as a specialty grain. In a similar way to what we’ve seen with place-based wheat variety development specifically for breadmaking and barley development for craft malting, I could imagine oat variety development specifically for regional food production. The oat grain is packed with lipids and protein, and when handled as a fresh product, has a wonderful flavor. If you haven’t tried fresh-milled oats, you will likely be surprised by the difference between them and store-bought rolled oats.

Oats also have a lot of potential as a cover crop. Even in cool soil, they germinate quickly and can put on a lot of biomass.

What the region really needs is oat variety testing to find varieties adapted to the regional climate and to specific uses such as cover crops or food grains.

What are the challenges facing the US oat industry?

Like other crops, oat production is threatened by a less-stable climate. Oat production regions are seeing severe drought in one year followed by late snowmelt in another year, and are struggling to keep up with demand. Furthermore, input costs continue to get higher, squeezing farmers’ margins.

What do you love about oats from a culinary perspective? How often do you eat them and how do you like them best?

I love to eat rolled oats in the Bircher muesli style: soaked overnight in grated apple and served mixed into Greek yogurt with berries and nuts. That’s a breakfast that’s hard to beat.


Read more

Oats (In Season, Fall 2023, Washington State Magazine)

Oat recipes