Our Llafur Ni group are working together to grow rare oat seeds across a patchwork of Welsh farms. Katie Hastings explains who is growing these seeds and why they are doing it. 

Five years ago, we had no idea that oats could grow in such varied sizes, shapes and colours. Oats were all the same, weren’t they? Sowing our 14 rare oats, gifted to us from the seed bank at IBERS (Aberystwyth University), we were shocked to see the different shadows these oats threw on the clifftop soils they were sown into. Tall, short, slender and rough, each variety was distinctly different. 

Oats were our gateway into bigger questions. Initially, we sowed them with curiosity. What were all these oat varieties stashed away in gene banks and no longer in our fields? Sowing them collectively, under the expert guidance of older farmer Gerald Miles, we were intrigued to see what they turned into. We noted their height, germination rate and panicle emergence. But our questions didn’t stop there. 

Could we eat these oats? How would we remove the hulls? How would we stabilise (preserve) the groats once the hulls had gone? Our questions stretched beyond the oats in front of us. Why were these oats no longer grown in Wales? Where had all the oat mills gone? Where were all the records of oats grown and eaten in the past? Our questions sawed to new heights. Why did we want to grow these seeds? Does a crop have a value beyond its use to humans? Could we find a way to weave these oats into our future? 

Photo by Andy Pilsbury

We have started answering the simpler of these questions. We have found ways to process our rare oats on a human scale. We have eaten some of them, and discovered a range of flavours we didn’t expect. We have spoken to millers and heard stories of oat processing from the past to the present. But we still have many unanswered questions. 

Growing seeds is an adventure, the first step in a process of learning. In 2023, our Llafur Ni collective have 7 oat seed plots, tended by volunteers and farmers across Wales. Not only are we splitting the risk of losing these seeds by ensuring they are grown in multiple locations, we are learning how they respond to different soils and different climates. Gathering data, taking pictures, learning from our mistakes, the end of the ‘oatlings’ story is still unwritten. 

Our seed growers are as diverse as the seeds themselves, each bringing a different perspective on our mission to increase the quantities of these oats. Slowly we are building up a seed store. But we are also building up a collective knowledge bank, and dare I say, a new relationship with these seeds. 

Penpont, Brecon – learning from the past 

The Penpont Estate in Brecon is undertaking an intergenerational nature recovery project unlike any other in Wales. Working with youth led organisation Action for Conservation, they are managing their land as a partnership with young environmentalists to farm with nature, restore biodiversity and produce delicious food.  

Forrest Hogg, a lifelong custodian of Penpont, explains why they are growing Llafur Ni oats: “We first heard about the black oats revival project through our work with The Gaia Foundation, who have helped bring into our partnership a range of eco-cultural mapping tools, first pioneered by indigenous communities of the Amazon basin. These tools have been central to building stronger relationships and creating a safe, yet ambitious, space for co-creating a wilder, more holistic and inclusive vision for Penpont. Delving into the past has been a big part of this process, not only to understand the ecological potential of this degraded land, but also to unearth a diversity of agricultural and land practices, some of which probably fall under the modern banner of ‘regenerative’ “.  

Looking at the farm records for the estate, Forrest tells us that 117 bushels of black oats were threshed in 1805 on their Aberbran Fach farm. “Oats would certainly have been grown on the Penpont estate since medieval times. They were more tolerant of the cooler and wetter local climate than other grains and needed less fertilise”. 

This spring, Forrest and the Penpont team are tending 7 of our Llafur Ni oat varieities for comparison; Hen Gardie, Potato, Dyfed, Maldwyn, Milford, Iwan’s Ceirch Du and Gerald’s Ceirch Du. “For us, valuing and saving these locally-adapted varieties is really important – these grains can play a role in building a more resilient agro-ecological future in Wales”.  

Picture: A map from c.1745 of Cwmsefin farm, Penpont. The areas circled in pink have later pencil notes that oats were grown in them. Cwmsefin is also home to the present-day Llafur Ni oat trial. 

Photo by Andy Pilsbury

Caerhys Farm, Pembrokeshire – seeds lost and found 

To anyone who has followed the story of the lost black oats, Gerald Miles is no stranger. Having farmed his clifftop fields since the age of sixteen, Gerald is a celebrity in the farming world, an activist, farmer and change maker. An ally of the Seed Sovereignty Programme, it was Gerald who instigated our Llafur Ni network, keen to work with other growers on bringing oat diversity back to Wales.  

Gerald’s grandfather grew Ceirch Du (black oats) on their family farm, but the seed was lost. When Gerald moved away from dairy farming and back to mixed farming in his middle age, he looked for the crops that had previously thrived on his land. Unable to find anyone else in Wales still growing Ceirch Du, he began an international search. It was a rugby bus from Ireland that finally transported some black oats to Gerald as a gift from a farming friend.  

Gerald has been growing Llafur Ni oats since 2018. This spring he has sown our 7 comparison varieties, with the hope of learning more about their nutritional content. The 7 varieties will be analysed by IBERS at the end of the season, telling us more about their fat and oil content.  Gerald explains his feelings on growing these seeds, “it is an honour, to make these seeds more accessible to other farmers”. 

Photo from farmerandchef.co.uk

Dan yr Onnen, Ceredigion – tasty possibilities 

Situated within eyesight of the sea, Dan yr Onnen is home to an ambitious test garden. Run as a partnership between Huw Richards, famous for his gardening YouTube channel and multiple gardening books, and, Sam Black, innovative chef passionate about local food. The pair are working to create a demonstration site in Mid Wales, experimenting with regenerative growing and seasonal eating. A big part of their Farmer and Chef mission is diversity, with variety trials being central to their growing and cooking plans.  

Huw, Sam and the team have grown Dyfed oats this year in their terraced beds. Sam says; “We’re growing Llafur Ni oats because we believe in preserving genetic diversity as security for the future and reverence for the past. As a chef, the opportunity to play my part also comes with the added bonus of experimenting with the flavours that were a part of everyday life for our ancestors, and the responsibility to make sure crips like this remain for those yet to come.” 

Oats are notoriously difficult to process on a small scale, needing dehulling and stabilising, on top of harvesting and processing. Sam is especially looking forward to using the Llafur Ni Tiny Oat Collider to dehull and taste a small sample of these oats at the end of the season, opening up new culinary possibilities.  

Dynyn, Machynlleth – musical connections 

A West Wales native, Owen Shiers is a musician and Welsh heritage enthusiast. Owen grew up immersed in Welsh music – from the sonorous melodies emanating from his father’s harp workshop to school life and festivals such as the Eisteddfod and Cnapan.  

On a Wales wide search for almost forgotten folk songs, Owen met older farmer Iwan Evans, living on a timeless farm near Llandysul. It turned out that Iwan was casually growing the Welsh Cerich Du (black oats) that Gerald Miles had been searching for, unaware that he could be the last person growing these oats. Owen instigated a connection between Iwan and Gerald, uniting them in their love of the almost extinct black oat. 

Photo by Andy Pilsbury

Owen is acting as a custodian of Iwan’s unique strain of Ceirch Du, growing it on freshly ploughed land at the Dynyn housing coop near Machynlleth. He is also growing Milford and Radnorshire sprig, hoping to glean information for the Llafur Ni group on how these oats differ from the Ceirch Du.  

Owen says: “Wales has a big food sovereignty problem. Despite having a diverse history of food production, nearly all of our food is now imported and the range of food we do produce has become very limited. Crops, specifically oats, used to form an important part of the Welsh diet. The growing of Welsh heritage grains such as black oats presents an opportunity to both turn the clock back – and future proof ourselves, as their genetic diversity makes them highly resilient in the face of an ever changing and climate.”. 

Holden Dairy Farm Lampeter – scaling up 

Patrick and Rebecca Holden farm at Bwlchwernen Fawr, which has been certified organic since 1973, making it the longest standing registered organic dairy farm in Wales. In the 80’s, Patrick became increasingly involved with the organic movement, specifically the Soil Association, eventually becoming Director until 2010. Patrick went on to found the Sustainable Food Trust, where he is still CEO. Becky and Patrick are developing their farm into a self-sufficient, sustainable base from which they now also produce one of the finest cheeses on the Welsh market, Hafod Cheddar.  

Working towards closed loop systems on their farm, Patrick and Rebecca grow oats as feed for their Ayrshire cows. When they heard about Ceirch Du (black oats), and other Welsh oat varieties no longer found in our fields, it made sense to them to be growing an oat variety suited to Welsh soils and with a Welsh story.   

Rebecca says: “We marked out a small plot at the boundary of west facing First Hay field and scattered just over two-and-a-half kilos of the precious seed by hand and then raked it in. Although our fields are small compared to an arable farmer’s, our grain growing is still mechanised and mostly carried out by contractors. It was enlightening to return to growing grain on a human scale, tuning in more physically and emotionally to the soil and the seeds, but also to the reality of how challenging and anxiety inducing that small crop was. We scrutinised the soil for emergence and carefully hand weeded around our tiny plants. As the season went on, we marvelled at the deep green colour and resistance to lodging (the bending of the stems) of these tall traditional oats compared to their mechanically drilled modern neighbours in the same field. In the weeks before harvest, we agonised in wonder as the usual arrival of crows, pigeons and badgers –  capable of decimating our grain crops – appeared to home in on the Ceirch Du and Ceirch Llwyd. Did they instinctively recognise a superior nutrient density?”.  

Rebecca goes on to explain that in 2022 they were able to sow larger quantities of Ceirch Du, and in 2023 they are growing 1 acre of Ceirch Du and Ceirch Llwyd (grey oats). The size of their farm and their access to machinery has enabled them to make a significant impact on increasing the quantities of these oats, ensuring their future use by other farmers. “Given how successfully Ceirch Du and Ceirch Llwyd have grown in our fields, we can really start to imagine a resilient landscape of heritage oats replacing the bought-in grain seed on the farm in just a few harvests”.   

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Machynlleth Allotments – medicinal properties 

Studying to complete her diploma as a medicinal herbalist, Beth Maiden is growing Llafur Ni oats on her allotment as research into the potency of different oat varieties. Having made tinctures from commercially available oat seeds, Beth is turning her attention to seed provenance for creating the best medicines.  

Herbalists primarily use milky oats as a support to the nervous system. Rich in minerals that build strength in the nervous tissue, milky oats contain various constituents including alkaloids (specifically, avenathramides A-C) that can improve cognitive function, memory and mental health. “Milky oats are known within western herbalism as a nervous system trophorestorative”, Beth explains, “useful for helping with recovery from periods of mental stress, and as a ‘thymoleptic’, meaning that they improve mood”. Oats are often prescribed to help with tobacco and drug withdrawal, and to support patients with depression, anxiety and insomnia. “Oats really are the medicine for modern times” Beth tells us. 

“Personally I’m both fascinated by phytochemistry, and also ambivalent about scientific research on herbs. We already know what herbs do for humans – herbs were our original medicines, throughout time and across the world our ancestors observed consistent beneficial effects of herbs on humans. It’s nice to prove things in controlled conditions, but we also need to be able to trust in what people have always known about plants through lived experience. Still, the scientist in me really wants to see how constituents differ across these beautiful heritage oats. Perhaps we’ll find one variety has a special affinity for the cardiovascular system, or that one is particularly high in antidepressant alkaloids. But for now, I am most interested in getting to know them as plants, just as I do with other herbs”.  

Beth takes oats daily and explains, “It’s important to me that the medicines I make have a
relationship to place – the herbs in my allotments are carefully chosen, I know where they came from, something of their history and tradition. Oats are an exception, I have only had access to standard commercially available seed until now. Sowing a few of Llafur Ni’s heritage varieties this spring, watching them germinate and grow three times the height of my standardised crop – it’s like growing a different plant”.  

To register your interest in joining the Llafur Ni collective and growing Llafur Ni oats in 2024, please contact katie@gaianet.org. We experience a very high number of requests for seed. At the moment, we cannot make these oats available to anyone outside our group, primarily because of the low quantities that exist. We hope that in the future, legislation permitting, we can find a way to share these seeds with more people.