Buckwheat, a historic crop with modern opportunities

Thomas Björkman, Section of Horticulture, Cornell University

Buckwheat with flowers isolated.
Buckwheat with flowers isolated.

Buckwheat is a historic crop in New York and Pennsylvania that is seen higher demand as a gluten-free food, and is financially attractive when commodity-crop prices are at today’s low. This article provides an update on the organization of the American buckwheat industry and some thoughts on how the crop fits in New York agriculture.

Recent interest in gluten-free foods has driven an increase in demand for buckwheat. The largest supplier of buckwheat to US food markets is The Birkett Mills right here in Penn Yan, NY. Birkett Mills has needed to contract supplies further from their mill in order to meet that demand. This year they have significant contracts as far away as Minnesota and Prince Edward Island. Their demand could be met much closer to home if more New York farmers raised it.

The Birkett Mills has a long history in this area. It was founded in 1797 as a water driven mill at the outlet to Keuka Lake. At that time, many mills were established in central New York as the region was settled by Europeans. Birkett Mills has the distinction of being one of the few mills that remains, and is still in the original location.

Some of the buckwheat flour is used to make the iconic buckwheat pancakes, but that is far from the only use. A substantial amount becomes roasted groats, called kasha, a staple of Eastern European cuisine. The company’s kasha is available in grocery stores nationally. Buckwheat meal, similar to cornmeal or cream of wheat, is used as an ingredient by food manufacturers. It is sold as “Cream of Buckwheat” breakfast cereal, but this versatile product is also used to make polenta. Polenta is well known in northern Italian cuisine is a corn dish. But before North American corn came to Italy, it was made with buckwheat.

There is one other mill of significance producing food ingredients from buckwheat, Minn-Dak in North Dakota. Much of their production is shipped to Asia. Two large growers in eastern Washington State export all of their production to Asia as whole grain. There are also a handful of small mills in the East that mill a few acres of buckwheat. Overall, the buckwheat marketing is highly concentrated.

There is also a thriving buckwheat seed industry to provide seed for cover crops and wildlife food plots. One of the major producers in this arena is seed way. They processed buckwheat at the historic AgriCulver mill south of Mecklenburg in Schuyler County. That mill served many growers in the Southern Tier when buckwheat was one of the primary crops in the region in the late 19th century.

Buckwheat breeding was privatized in the 1990s, so the premium varieties that are used for food have all been under total production contracts. Many find it surprising that this seemingly neglected crop one of the pioneers in adopting this model of funding breeding and seed production.

Buckwheat for food is largely the proprietary variety, Koto, released by breeder Clayton Campbell in the late 1990s. Other users largely produce Mancan, Dr. Campbell’s first release, in 1972. Some growers, based on old production guides, go looking for ‘Japanese’ or ‘Silverhull’ varieties. These have not been in commerce for five decades or more.

A contemporary role for buckwheat in field-crop production is to manage glyphosate-resistant weeds. The essential principle for herbicide-resistance management is the weeds die from many different causes. When a buckwheat crop is in the rotation, it effectively smothers a portion of the weeds. It is effective against most of weeds that have developed glyphosate resistance in New York. For these annuals, the trick is to have the weed seed germinate just a few days after the buckwheat so that they are smothered. A good buckwheat planting should show greenline by the morning of the fourth day, and outcompete the many weed seeds that germinate then. Buckwheat is also used in organic production to suppress quack grass, and prevent it from becoming a big problem.

Experienced farmers who have not raised buckwheat generally show an interest either when corn prices are low or planting season has been wet. When corn appears to be breakeven or a money loser because prices are too low, buckwheat can be profitable because the input costs are so much less. For 2016, a 120-bushel corn crop would give a ne loss of $100 per acre by my calculation, whereas the same ground planted to buckwheat would net a profit of $100. In a wet spring, buckwheat can be a catch crop on unplanted ground. The time to sow buckwheat at the beginning of July, after the opportunity to plant corn and soybeans has already passed.

Buckwheat’s low input requirements made it the mainstay on hill farms with low soil fertility and weak finances. Much of that ground is now appropriately in either forest or pasture. The farming community began to associate buckwheat with farms having the toughest time. Particularly during the Depression when buckwheat acreage was dropping elsewhere in favor of corn. In New York, that stigma persisted for decades and was still noticeable in the 1980s and 90s. The social factor likely prevented many people from trying buckwheat when it would have been a wise and profitable addition to their rotation. Some of the bigger buckwheat growers even put the crop in fields that were not visible from main roads. The stigma seems to be wearing off. Activities such as the Northeast Buckwheat Growers Association has helped bring buckwheat growers out of the shadows and bring them respect for their professionalism.

Today there is no “typical” buckwheat grower, but a few common themes emerge. A few are specialized, where buckwheat is a big part of their regular rotation and they have invested in equipment to make harvest as efficient and effective as possible. Many farmers raise a few acres of buckwheat from time to time as a catch crop on fields that could not be planted to their intended crop. Weekend farmers can start with buckwheat because it does not require day-to-day attention, the cost of basic equipment is low, and it grows satisfyingly fast even on the lower fertility fields that these farmers often own. A surprisingly large proportion of these weekend farmers are engineers who have worked at one of the Central New York’s big technology firms. Organic field crops growers use buckwheat to diversify their rotation and reduce weed pressure.

Farmers today can take pride, and profit, in raising some buckwheat as part of their rotation. Production information is available at www.hort.cornell.edu/bjorkman/lab/buck/

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