My dad, while watching someone with a lot of energy, would often remark, “He’s really feeling his oats!”
It’s an expression you don’t hear much, if at all, these days, but back when the U.S. was a mainly agricultural nation the phrase really meant something, especially to those who had lived during the era when horses provided much of the motive power that grew the nation.
Granted, horses can eat hay and graze on pasture grass, but it turned out that oats are a sort of superfood for horses.
As Horse Canada magazine explained, “Of all the cereal grains (e.g. corn, barley, wheat, etc.) oats have the most appropriate nutritional profile for horses. They are an excellent source of calories, and have a better protein and amino acid profile than many other grains. They are higher in fat and fibre (thanks to the hull) and are, therefore, lower in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) than most other grains. They are well digested within the horse’s small intestine, even with little processing (as long a horse has good teeth!) and, therefore, pose a lower risk of sugars reaching the large intestine and contributing to colic or laminitis. Also, because of their lower NSC content, they are not considered a ‘hot’ feed.”
These days, horses, especially on farms, have been mostly relegated to the status of expensive hobbies and oats are considered for their value as health food. What were the mechanics of that change over time?
By now, even casual readers of this blog have realized I have a keen interest in how farming has evolved during the past couple centuries or so. And, especially as this time of year rolls around, few things illustrate the profound changes in farming and farm culture than virtual disappearance of small grains in the local agriculture cycle.
Small grains are ancient in origin and were (and in some areas of the world still are) vital parts of the farming process. But not here, and not now.
Defined as cereal grains—wheat, oats, rye, and barley—small grains are, like their cousin, corn, the seeds of genetically modified grasses that humans have relied upon for food for thousands of years. Some, like oats and wheat, still somewhat resemble their ancient genetic ancestors. Other grains, like corn, no more resemble their most ancient ancestor than a Chihuahua resembles a timber wolf.
You can still drive around the northern Illinois countryside this time of year and see a few small fields of small grains turning a beautiful golden color in the summer sun. But today’s occasional fields of oats and even more rare stands of wheat are pale shadows of what farmers planted and grew here a century and more ago.
These days, instead of those once extensive fields of ripening small grains, you’ll mostly see extensive fields of tall corn swaying in summer prairie breeze, interspersed with huge fields of soybeans, a crop that was as rare here in the 1920s as wheat is today.
Why the change, why the evolution? Because times change as does the use to which crops are put. Back in the early 1800s when pioneer farm families settled Kendall County, small grains were absolutely necessary for survival. Wheat was harvested and ground into flour either on the farm or at one of the new gristmills that were rapidly popping up along every county stream whose bed had enough fall to power a waterwheel.
Oats, on the other hand, were the fuel that powered the horses and mules that were the backbone of energy on the farm and in the transportation industry of the era. Granted, oats, too, could be ground into flour or they could be otherwise processed for use as oatmeal and for other human foods, but their primary use was to feed the millions of horses the nation relied on for everything from pulling stagecoaches to delivering beer.
Barley and rye were also used for human consumption by being ground into flour, but they were also popular grains for processing into the beer and whiskey so beloved by so many in that era when drinking water was mistrusted, often for good reason. The germ theory of disease was still considered a radical hypothesis, so wells and outhouses were often adjacent leading to outbreaks of typhoid fever and other waterborne illnesses from which even the wealthy were not immune. In 1861, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died of complications of typhoid fever contracted in their London palace, probably from tainted water.
But back to farming. It didn’t take too long after settlement for farmers to realize northern Illinois really wasn’t good wheat country. Wheat likes warm, relatively dry growing conditions, and while we all know Illinois does not lack for summer heat, dry conditions (except during drought years) are not what you find around these humid parts.
As the frontier kept moving ever farther west, those ideal wheat conditions were found west of the tallgrass prairies out on the Great Plains in a huge swath from Texas north to the Dakotas. Improved transportation systems added to the climate soon meant that bread could be baked in regional cities and shipped to small farming towns cheaper than rural folks could produce it on their own.
But that didn’t apply to oats. In 1912, which was close to the high-water mark for oat production, Kendall County farmers harvested 53,000 acres of the grain, producing well over 2.5 million bushels to feed their own horses and mules, but mostly for market. But by 2007, so few acres of oats were harvested in Kendall County that the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t even report them.
Why so many bushels of oats then and so few later on? When oat production was at its height, farmers relied on horses to plant and harvest crops and then haul them to market. Today, farmers use gasoline and diesel oil to fuel those activities, which have become entirely mechanized. And in towns and cities, where horses once hauled everything from streetcar passengers to mail delivery buggies to the milkman’s delivery wagon, hydrocarbon-fueled machines have replaced the millions of horses that once did those tasks.
By 1900, the nation’s total horse population reached an estimated 24.1 million, with just under three million being kept in cities. In cities with more than 100,000 population there was roughly one horse for every 15 people, varying from one horse for every 7.4 people in Kansas City to one for every 26.4 in New York City. And those horses required millions of bushels of oats for food. The nation’s horse population peaked about 1915, and from then on thanks to the advent of dependable, economical automobiles, the horse population declined by about a half a million animals a year. Along with that decline, the need for oats similarly decreased.
Not that folks back then were sad to see horses go, of course. In Chicago in 1900, the city’s 82,000 horses deposited between 1.2 and 2.4 million pounds of manure and 20,500 gallons of urine in stables and on city streets every day. In addition, one contemporary expert estimated in 1900 that three billion flies—each a tiny airborne disease factory—hatched in horse manure every day in U.S. cities. It was little wonder automobiles and trucks were welcomed by public health experts of the era.
So the realization that wheat grew better farther west, the disappearance of the horse, and the evolution of Midwestern farming to specialization in either raising grain or livestock led to the annual harvest of small grains and all that it meant to our farmer forebears, both socially and economically. But gradually it became mostly a thing of the past here in the Fox Valley. The change accelerated as the nation transitioned from a largely rural to an overwhelmingly urbanized nation.
And so today, you can drive around Kendall County and still see small stands of cereal grains here and there. But the “amber waves of grain” that once carpeted our landscape have been almost entirely replaced by corn and soybeans–and subdivisions. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but it’s certainly a big change.