SLÖINGE, SWEDEN — Berte Qvarn’s milling experience may span 450 years and 14 generations but it’s far from old-fashioned. The Swedish company is embracing the future with its new oat processing plant, a testament to the revival of oats as a healthy and nutritious superfood and in tune with the company’s sustainability targets. 

Within its milling headquarters in Slöinge, Sweden, the family-owned company’s history is reflected in the brick building where its milling began, located adjacent to its future in the modern wheat mill with storage silos and the new oat processing plant. 

“These three buildings tell our company’s history in a nutshell,” said Helena Stenström, head of sustainability of Berte Group, which includes an ice cream business with a market share of 20% in Sweden, a 240-head organic farm and Berte Qvarn, the milling branch. “The stable business, and the knowledge in wheat milling that has been passed from generation to generation. And then there’s the oat processing plant, not even two years old, which allows us to add another product to our range, to increase our expertise, and last but not least, to take a major step toward achieving our sustainability goals of reducing our footprint by 50% by 2030.”

The company had been considering oats for some time, but when Oatly, the world’s largest producer of oat milk, asked Berte Qvarn to be its supplier, the decision was made. The deal was signed in 2019 and the first deliveries to Oatly’s processing facility in Malmö, about 150 kilometers south of Sloinge, started in February 2021.

Time was of the essence since Oatly is a fast-growing company and supplies major retail stores on all continents including coffee giant, Starbucks.

“When two companies share the same values and vision, they’re building a partnership rather than negotiating a business agreement,” said Tomas Wennerholm, global supply manager at Oatly. “We choose Berte Qvarn because of their close relationship with local farmers, and because of their reputation as a reliable partner in grain processing.

“The fact that Berte Qvarn gets all their oats from farmers within 100 kilometers of their headquarters was a decisive factor as it perfectly fits our sustainability targets.”

In turn, Berte Qvarn opted to work with Bühler, Uzwil, Switzerland, for the processing facility, covering the full value chain from intake to cleaning, dehulling and kilning. 

“From day one, we knew we had a tight schedule,” said Thomas Höhndorf, area sales manager at Bühler, who was involved in the project from the first meeting to the startup of the plant in 2020. “But thanks to our long-standing relationship in wheat milling and Berte Qvarn’s trust in our solutions for oat processing, we pulled in the same direction from the go with the clear goal to deliver the best possible product to Oatly.”

Oat revival 

As a family-owned company, Berte Qvarn believes part of its duty is to consider the well-being of the next generations in all of its business decisions, Stenström said. The company is working with local farmers toward a fossil-free, diversified farm project.

“It focuses on improving every step of the grain’s journey from farm to fork,” she said. “Oats play a vital part in the ecosystem in terms of crop rotation and add valuable nutrients to the soil. They’re a very popular, locally grown grain in Scandinavia, and offer a high level of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and essential minerals.”

Aside from the health and environmental benefits, now is an opportune time to invest in the booming oat market. It experienced rapid growth during the pandemic with consumer demand for healthy food soaring over the past two years. 

The global oat market is projected to reach up to $10 billion by 2028, up from $7.8 billion in 2021, according to industry research provider The Insight Partners. 

Canada accounts for 75% of world oat trade, while Australia is the second largest global exporter of raw and processed oats. The United States is the world’s largest importer of oats, followed by Germany and China. Sweden is among the top 10 largest producers at about 800,000 tonnes per year. 

Gains in oat food and beverage consumption are expected to continue, according to a report by the Australian Export Grain Innovation Centre, as concerns such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease drive consumers to the health benefits of oats. 

“Here in Scandinavia, oats are found everywhere, it’s natural to use oat-based cosmetics, for example,” Stenström said. “We see that people around the world have become more aware of what they consume and put a strong focus on regional, sustainable products that add health benefits.”

Cutting edge processing

Once it decided to enter the oat market and play a role in bringing the benefit of oats to people around the world, Berte Qvarn turned to Bühler for its processing facility. 

“Luckily, we have a very experienced and committed partner on our side with Bühler who already built and equipped the wheat mill with their state-of-the-art technology, so it was a seamless transition for all of us at Berte Qvarn,” said Magnus Lindblom, wheat miller turned oat miller. 

Lindblom volunteered to be trained as an oat miller when he learned about the company’s decision to start processing oats. He has spent 20 years in wheat milling. 

“I’m proud to work for Berte Qvarn and be able to contribute to a more sustainable future,” he said. “Adding oats to our portfolio was a natural choice for me, and I had to grab this chance. Not only because I’m convinced of the many benefits oats bring to the table, but to broaden my horizon and add new skills to my own portfolio.”

A testament to the company’s drive for sustainability is its onsite hydroelectric power station. It soon will be upgraded to supply up to 40% of the energy needs for the milling operations. 

The oat facility produces 16,000-17,000 tonnes of kilned oats per year, processing 24,000 tonnes to 25,000 tonnes of raw oats and 16,000 tonnes to 17,000 tonnes of kernels per year. It has an intake capacity of 90 tonnes per hour (tph) and output of about 50 tph of finished product.

“From intake, oats are sorted using the latest generation of optical sorters ensures the highest food safety by reducing cross contamination from other grain varieties, discoloration, subtle spots and various foreign material,” Höhndorf said. After cleaning, the oats are dehulled and kilned before being loaded into Berte Qvarn trucks for delivery to Oatly. 

The Mercury Manufacturing Execution System (MES) provides all relevant process details at an operator’s fingertips. 

“That’s an incredible level of efficiency if you compare it to the older days, when a miller had to constantly walk though the mill and check parameters manually,” Lindblom said. 

Lindblom, along with his colleague, operates the entire plant in two shifts of 12 hours each. Because of the high-level of automation, Lindblom has four days off a week to spend with his family.

Continuous training and customer service offered by Bühler are essential in helping the facility reach the next level, Lindblom said.

“State-of-the-art equipment requires a state-of-the-art service agreement,” he said. “Bühler’s continuous support and the regular training we receive are indispensable to getting the most out of our facility.” 

Berte Qvarn is now looking into the possibilities offered by Bühler Insights, the company’s cloud platform. The goal is to collect even more data from the company’s processes and turn that into ways to increase output and reduce food loss.

“At the end of the day, we have a responsibility as food processors to use our planet’s resources as efficiently as possible and create sustainable food value chains for future generations,” Lindblom said. 

Oats will continue to be a part of Berte Qvarn’s future plans, Stenström said. The oat mill is equipped with solutions for providing a larger variety of end products, such as flour and flakes.

“We’re prepared to increase our output and do our part to facilitate the comeback of oats to supermarket shelves around the world,” she said.