“Buckwheat is really a pseudo grain. It’s not wheat. It’s not barley. It’s actually a seed more closely related to rhubarb, but it acts in a way similar to rice or quinoa,” explained Kyle Gifford, CEO of Birkett Mills in Penn Yan, NY. Birkett Mills, established in 1797, is the largest buyer and miller of buckwheat, both conventional and organic, in the Northeast.

Researcher Dr. Thomas Björkman of Cornell AgriTech and New York State farmer Klaas Martens also contributed to the buckwheat discussion, which was part of the NOFA-VT annual winter conference. While many growers are aware of the benefits of using buckwheat as a cover crop, such as weed suppression and building soil tilth, Gifford, Björkman and Martens believe more growers could take advantage of growing it as a seed crop.

According to Björkman, buckwheat is a good fit for vegetable growers. They can follow an early crop such as peas or spinach, since it only takes about 70 – 80 days to mature. Buckwheat can also be used as a crop as a farm is bringing idle land into production. Farms who put up stored forages can plant it as they’re rotating out of hay or pasture. And buckwheat is also a viable option for corn growers who, due to excessive moisture, are unable to get on sections of their corn ground.

Martens, who grows organic grains in the Finger Lakes region, said growing buckwheat helps create better conditions for the legumes that follow in his crop rotations. “Buckwheat can clean the soil of root rot organisms that occur when growing legumes such as beans,” Martens said.

Björkman dispelled a few common myths about buckwheat – that it doesn’t take a lot of care to grow and that it likes poor soil. He said, “It doesn’t take a lot of work to grow. There’s not a lot of steps, but you have to do every one of those steps with a great deal of care to have success. You want a decent to good soil, but you don’t want to put fertilizer on it. It also doesn’t mind a low pH.” If the fertility is too high, it can make for large yet low-yielding plants.

The timing of planting is one of the important steps. Summer sowing should be timed to avoid flower blasting during the hottest part of summer and to allow the crop time to mature before frost. There should be no hot weather (greater than 90º) after flowering begins and at least 10 weeks of frost-free growing weather.

Because buckwheat has very fine roots, growers should avoid planting into compacted soil. If using a grain drill, seed at 50 lbs./acre, a half-inch to three-quarters-inch deep. Then, the ground should be rolled. The goal is to have no more than 10 inches between plants, otherwise weeds will emerge.

Earning bucks by growing buckwheat

Buckwheat growers gather to share notes and discuss crop progress at a field day organized by Cornell’s Thomas Björkman. Photo courtesy of Thomas Björkman

Björkman noted that standing water will stop seedling growth and result in bare spots. Because buckwheat is not related to any other common crops, there are no notable buckwheat pests or diseases. Essentially, there is no maintenance during the growth phase.

Beyond planting timing, the other critical step is harvest timing. “If you’ve raised corn or soybeans, you’ll notice something unusual about buckwheat harvest time,” Björkman said. “It is green, and that makes it a challenge for harvest. If you leave mature buckwheat too long waiting for the leaves to come off, that grain is going to end up on the ground. And you want that grain to end up in the bin.”

Buckwheat growers used to be able to depend on an early autumn frost to kill the green growth. They would wait for a few days after the frost and then combine. Martens, whose Finger Lakes location didn’t have its first frost until Nov. 11 in 2022, said this technique no longer works. Now he plants his buckwheat later, typically as a secondary crop after harvesting a crop of winter barley or wheat. He uses a swather to mow the crop, and once the plants have dried down, he comes in with a pickup head on the combine.

“Investing in the equipment for windrowing really pays off,” Björkman said. “You get better yield and it’s lower moisture. It’s faster, and there is less risk of loss from weather.” He advised to cut when about 70% of the seeds are black and to cut high to provide air under the swath. The swaths lay on the cut stalks and cure for about seven to 10 days.

With favorable weather and soil conditions, buckwheat yields 20 to 30 bushels/acre (1,000 -1,500 pounds). Buckwheat grown on poorer ground will have lower yields. According to Björkman, the New York State average is usually about 15 bushels/acre. Muddy conditions at sowing or emergence, heat during flowering, excessive vegetative growth and delayed harvest can substantially knock down yields.

Martens believes buckwheat plays an important role in a well-designed cropping system. Björkman believes it’s relatively simple to grow and harvest, particularly if a grower has a grain drill and mower that can lay the plants out in windrows until it’s dry enough.

And Gifford believes Birkett Mills has an ever-growing market. One of buckwheat’s big selling points, according to Gifford, is that buckwheat is gluten free, despite its name. It also has one of the highest protein contents in the plant kingdom.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin