by Cammie Barden
“There is a lot of demand for [buckwheat]…and it fits nicely into organic rotation,” Thomas Bjorkman of Cornell University said at the NOFA-NY Conference in Liverpool, NY on March 16. Bjorkman has been studying buckwheat for over 25 years and is an expert in its production.
Buckwheat has been grown in the area for years, but other grain crops get the focus. It looks very different from wheat and the investment made by farmers is different from corn or wheat.
Planting buckwheat suppresses weeds. “In organic production, suppressing the weeds is a big part,” Bjorkman said, referencing difficulties organic farmers face with weeds. Buckwheat also improves tilth, forms aggregates, and requires small labor, small cash investment and a short growing season. An ideal time buckwheat is grown is when labor or cash flow is limited and there is land available.
There are a few myths surrounding buckwheat. One is buckwheat doesn’t take a lot of care to grow. The truth is buckwheat doesn’t require a lot of work. As with all plants, there are some necessities involved. However, buckwheat doesn’t require much after planting.
Another myth associated with the crop involves soil fertility. Buckwheat prefers to grow in soil with low fertility. A field with lower corn yields is perfect for buckwheat. Other lands which are used for buckwheat are idle lands being brought into production, rotating out hay or pasture, following an early crop, or reclaiming land from quackgrass or weeds.
The steps for buckwheat are simple: Sell, plant, harvest, deliver.
All buckwheat is on contract, usually with a mill. The mill will create a contract and disclose all the details prior to the sale of the seed. Once the paperwork is out of the way, the producer will purchase the seed.
According to Brian McFetridge of Birkett Mills in Penn Yann, NY, 2015 seed cost was $34 per acre. Taking into account the costs of field prep and planting, as well as trucking, 1,000 lbs. of buckwheat produced $298 per acre. If the crop were to suffer some sort of failure, many mills will not hold the farmer accountable. This is selling the buckwheat.
The next step is planting. Early soil preparation with no soil compaction is recommended. A shallow seeding in areas with no wet spots or heavy rain is necessary. Drilling is the best method for planting with the depth deep enough for moisture but no air contact. This is roughly around one inch, but can vary based on soil type and climate.
Drilling should be at 50 lbs. per acre. It is possible to broadcast at 50-70 lbs. acre, but it would depend heavily on how uniform and firm the soil is after spreading.
As stated previously, buckwheat is an ideal crop against quackgrass or other weeds, such as Canada thistle. This is due to the fact buckwheat is a fast-growing crop and usually is the first out of the ground. However, if a gap exists in the field, some weeds can develop. Expect 30 days to lapse from planting to flowering.
There are some difficulties to consider in regards to buckwheat. The first of which is how easily buckwheat can show signs of heat stress. It is best to plant this crop around the fourth of July for Southern and Central New York. This is to keep the plant from flowering during the heat of the summer but mature before the first frost.
In areas near Lake Ontario, planting can happen 10 days later, or around mid-July. This is also true in areas with late frosts or low elevation. In areas of higher elevation, such as 16,000-20,000 feet, planting should occur prior to early July.
Another difficulty associated with the crop is its lack of tolerance for water-logged soil. Even letting newly sprouted buckwheat sit in a puddle for an afternoon will cause the plants to die. This limits the areas the crop can grow.
The benefits of growing buckwheat, besides those already mentioned, are numerous. This crop can be grown as a catch crop. It is easy to raise organically and it sells at a premium. Finally, this crop, which already suppresses weeds, does not require any type of pesticide. If planted as a summer crop, there will be very little insect pressure.
Once planting is finished, there is nothing which needs to be done until it is time to harvest.
Mature buckwheat ready for harvest may appear to need some more time. The first sign the plant is mature can be found near the base. The leaves will turn from green to yellow and will fall off. The flowers and accompanying seeds will then turn black and can be pulled off the plant with relative ease. The leaves on the upper part of the plant may still be green and the buckwheat may still be flowering. But once 75 percent of the flowers have turned black, the field is ready for harvest.
The best time to harvest buckwheat is during the afternoon. The seeds pull off the plant easier in the afternoon than in the morning.
A swather is the best for harvest. A combine can be used under some circumstances. Combines should be used when there are good, light wind conditions. Under no circumstance should a combine be driven fast. It should only be done at a slow speed. Combines should be used on small acreage and high elevations. A special rotary is needed to keep the plant from clogging the machine or wrapping around the rotor. The reel speed should match ground speed and a fan should be used to blow away the empty seeds.
The windrow method produces a better yield and is faster at a lower moisture, which creates less of a risk of loss from the weather. The time for this process is when at least 70 percent has black seeds, which is usually around Sept. 18. The cut needs to be high for plenty of air to flow under the swath. Afterwards, curing should occur for seven to 10 days.
The last step, delivery, is the easiest. Yet the guidelines laid out by the mill need to be followed. It is possible, if there is too much of another item mixed with the buckwheat, the load may be rejected. The delivery must also be made on time.
It is a good idea to contact the mill prior to delivery. This will ensure they are expecting the load and the mill is open. It also serves to communicate how many more loads are still expected.
Numerous mills are always in search of buckwheat. Although selling must be done prior to planting, the demand is there. With the average consumer expanding their diet to organic vegetables, fruits, and grains, the demand for buckwheat will only increase. It may even explode with popularity once a fact is revealed to the public; buckwheat is naturally gluten free.