The quality of Irish oats is hailed by leading chefs around the world, so why then do we often buy foreign oats? It makes no sense from an economic, ecological or culinary standpoint to ignore this great wholefood that thrives in our Atlantic climate. Some weeks back this column recommended using Irish wheat for bread-making, but we had to concede that the best “strong” flour for yeast bread and sourdough is grown in warmer climates. This is not the case for oats. Our ancestors have been growing them on the island for millennia, and there are still a handful of producers keeping the tradition alive, some of whom use organic methods. By supporting these farmers we get to eat a natural superfood that is far superior to anything available abroad, while also cutting down on transport costs and promoting a form of farming that is far more sustainable and less carbon dependent than beef rearing or dairying.
Odlums is the first brand to come to mind, but, alas, they are no longer milling oats in Ireland and have centralised their production in a large facility in Scotland. Glanbia Ireland has contracts with 115 Irish farmers, mainly in Carlow, Kildare and Laois, to grow oats which they mill in Portlaoise and are sold under the premium American brand, McCanns steel cut Irish oatmeal, as well as through supply agreements with a number of niche Irish brands, including Irish Town and Grandma Henvey’s.
For more than a decade the largest company milling Irish-grown oats has been Flahavans, who for 245 years have milled in Kilmacthomas in Co Waterford at a unit that has been powered by the River Mahon since 1780s. The current owner, John Flahavan, is the great-great-great-grandson of the founder, and is by far the biggest supporter of organic tillage farmers in Ireland.
It's not easy for us small guys to compete with the big supermarkets who sell organic porridge oats for €1 per kilo
Flahavan's also mill oats for Pat Lalor of Kilbeggan Oats. The Lalor family have farmed their land in Ballard, Co Westmeath for six generations and their organic oats are produced without the use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or artificial fertilisers. The Kilbeggan brand is well distributed around the country and now, lapping at their heels, comes the Scully family in Vicarstown, Co Laois, who claim to be the first Irish family to be growing, harvesting and milling organic gluten-free oats. Their oats sell under The Merry Mill brand and while not as widely distributed, can be bought online at themerrymill.ie.
James Kelly of Ballymore Organics began growing oats at the same time as the Scullys, and his farm at Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare grows and mills organic oats and wholemeal wheat flour (ballymoreorganics.ie). Donal Creedon of Macroom Mills also produces a wonderful oatmeal that is available in many supermarkets, especially in Munster.
Finding oats that are genuinely Irish can be tricky. Ballybrado, for example, use some grain from the UK in their organic oats, while Bunalun don’t use any Irish oats in their organic porridge oats.
Home-produced natural foods grown by Irish farming families can succeed, but as James Kelly says, “it’s not easy for us small guys to compete with the big supermarkets who sell organic porridge oats for €1 per kilo. It costs me way more than that simply to mill it”.
To ensure that Ireland continues to produce a sustainable supply of organic wholefoods we need to support farming families like the Lalors and the Scullys, and in return the environment, the economy, the community and our overall health will benefit. It’s the ultimate win-win. And it’s in our power to achieve.
This article was edited on February 3rd 2021.