Meet the Producers, Oats from Field to Plate

Learn about the journey of oats.

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David Thomson and his father Bill run a 750 Hectare farm close to the village of Morebattle near Kelso, in the heart of the Scottish Borders. It is a mixed farm with both sheep and cattle as well as arable crops, including oats. “Having the correct balance between livestock and crops is important” says David “as it helps us keep the natural fertility in the land and maintains a farming cycle that suits the growing climate in this area. The kind of farm we have and our growing climate are the reasons we grow oats. Oats do well in the Scottish climate where longer summertime days, cooler temperatures and higher rainfall allow the grain to swell naturally to provide a bright plump oat suitable for milling”.

David takes his responsibilities for environmental management very seriously and is a member of LEAF, an organisation ‘Linking the Environment and Farming’. LEAF’s work is based on the principles of Integrated Farm Management (IFM), an established international movement advocating and implementing sustainable land management to protect the world’s fragile species. IFM embraces the whole farm, provides a flexible framework for farmers to maintain biodiversity and preserves the countryside for future generations.

In addition to being a member of LEAF, the farm is also part of the Rural Stewardship Scheme. This scheme provides assistance to help farmers adopt environmentally friendly practices and maintain and enhance particular habitats and landscape features. Through the scheme, David has undertaken a range of activities to increase the amount of wildlife on his farm. He has built ponds, fenced off waterways, planted hedges, left grass margins around every field and planted species-rich grassland. All this activity has helped to create new wildlife habitats and David has noticed many more hares, voles and owls as he goes around his farm.

In terms of the crop itself, the oats are sown in the autumn, usually during September, and the crop establishes itself before winter really sets in. Once winter is past, spring is a crucial phase as this is the period that determines how the crop will yield and how good the grain quality will be. David says: “We carefully calculate how much fertiliser we need to make the crop grow well and also balance its needs against our environmental obligations in order to preserve the wildlife diversity that we have helped to encourage”.

In late spring and early summer the ear of the oat appears from the shoot, peeping out at first before fully emerging into the open array of stalked dangling spikelets so characteristic of the oat crop. From that point onwards, the grains begin to fill and warmth and moisture are the two crucial factors here. In late July, the final stage of the crop, the oats begin to ripen and by the middle to end of August the crop has turned into a rich golden brown and is ready to harvest. At this stage David walks into the oat fields and takes a sample of the grain by pulling off a few of the crop heads and rubbing them between his hands. This produces a sample that can be tested for moisture and when it is less than 20%, the combine harvester goes in.

Harvesting is a very weather dependent activity. “A sunny day with a light breeze provides the best conditions as this lifts the morning dew and lets us get started early,” says David. “Once started, we harvest for as long as the weather will let us, which if we are fortunate, is into the early hours of the morning when the dew comes down again. When the combine is running full tilt we have two tractors and trailers leading the oats back to the grain store”. At the grain store, the oats are cleaned to take out any weed seeds and straw and they are also dried down to 15% moisture. After drying, the grain is cooled and then it is stored in a bin and set aside for John Hogarth Ltd, located only 8 miles away.

Harvest time is a crucial time of year for the oat miller as this is the period where most of the oats secured for the mill are purchased. In this respect, the location of the mill at Kelso has been advantageous. It is surrounded by the fertile land of the Tweed River basin where many Border farmers have grown and sold their oats to the local mill for generations.

Douglas Veitch (Purchasing and Operations Director) says: “We have a core group of farmer growers whom we know well, and they supply the majority of the oats we mill at Kelso. We have worked with them for many years and they have been selected on the basis of their ability to supply us with the highest quality oats. David Thomson at Cessford Farm is a prime example; we purchased oats from his father at Cessford and now we purchase them from David. He knows exactly what we want and, being so close, we can even go to his farm and see the oats growing in his fields”.

At harvest time samples are taken from the farm to the mill to test their suitability for milling. The key quality criterion is that the oats have a bright colour and that they are plump and sweet smelling. The moisture content is also tested to confirm that the oats have been correctly dried and stored. Douglas says: “Once all the tests have been carried out and we are happy with the sample, we purchase the oats and they are then set aside for us to call off”. The company insists on high standards and all the farmer suppliers are members of quality assurance schemes, such as Scottish Quality Cereals.

As the season progresses, the farmers are advised when their oats will be collected, and when a load arrives at the mill it is meticulously checked again to make sure it is of a suitable standard. “We always know which farm our oats have come from” says Douglas, “and that’s important, so that we have complete traceability”. Once the load has been cleared it is tipped into a storage bin and from there it starts the milling process. Initially the grains are cleaned to pick out any small amounts of weed, seeds and straw. The oats are then steamed, kilned and cooled to bring out the flavour of the oat before they are shelled (de-hulled) to take off the husk. Finally, the groats (shelled oats) are colour sorted before they enter the last stage of the milling process where they are cut and either rolled to produce oat flakes or stone ground to produce the different grades of coarse (pinhead), medium and fine oatmeal.

When the milling process is completed, the various grades of oatmeal are tested against the customer specification to check they are suitable for dispatch. Nothing leaves the mill unless it passes the rigorous quality system audit, and this helps to make sure that our customers, including Nairn’s Oatcakes, receive the products they need.

Nairn’s can trace its company history back to 1896 when John and Sarah Nairn opened a bakery shop in Strathaven, south of Glasgow. The Nairn family sold the company in the late 1970’s. Today Nairn’s is the leading producer of oatcakes, is independently owned and managed and still retains the core expertise of baking good tasting, wholesome products made with oats.

John Holroyd, Sales Director, says: “From our single production site in Edinburgh, we bake an extensive range of oat based products using wholegrain oats. We source all our ingredients from trusted suppliers and have developed a range of different types of Oatcakes for different tastes and occasions. In recent years, we have extended our range to include Oat Biscuits baked without any wheat and also Oat Bakes, which are like a crisp and are packaged in single portion bags.

In some of our Oatcakes, oats make up over 80% of the ingredient mix. This is where our relationship with Hogarth’s has helped us. They provide us with various grades of pinhead [coarse], medium and fine oatmeal and oat flour and with our expertise in baking, we combine these in various ways to produce different varieties of oatcakes: Rough, Fine Milled, Organic, Mini, Cheese, and Herb with Pumpkin Seeds”.

The baking process is simple and straightforward. Wholegrain oats, vegetable oil, salt and some raising agent are added to a mixing bowl. The ingredients are carefully mixed to form a dough, which is then passed through rollers to form a thin sheet. Small round cutters cut shapes from the dough and it is these ’rounds’ that are baked in long ovens to produce the oatcakes. The warm oatcakes are then cooled prior to being packed and dispatched to the various retail outlets mainly throughout the UK.

At Nairn’s, we strive to bake food that is as simple, natural and wholesome as possible. In common with other products with a high oat content, much of the range has a low Glycaemic Index and a low Glycaemic Load, which means that their consumption tends to increase blood sugar levels more slowly than other biscuits and crackers. As a result, they provide a more sustained source of energy and help one to feel fuller for longer.

Oatcakes in particular are a very versatile food, delicious at breakfast with fruit or marmalade, great at lunch or as a snack with a savoury topping, can be enjoyed in the evening with some cheese and a glass of wine and are also great with sweet toppings like bananas and honey.

Quality control is a key aspect at every stage of the production process and Nairn’s is accredited by the British Retail Consortium (BRC), achieving their Higher Standard. This Standard was created to establish a quality benchmark for the supply of food products and to act as a key piece of evidence for UK food manufacturers to demonstrate due diligence. The Standard encompasses all aspects of HACCP, traceability, quality management, factory environment and product and process control.

Whole Grain Goodness