In spite of its name, buckwheat is not a wheat, nor is it related to any small grains. Its gray-black seeds, similar in size and weight to barley, are classified as fruit.
A broad-leaf plant in the rhubarb family, buckwheat is believed to have originated in China. It is adaptable to many soils and prefers cool climates. Because buckwheat is not related to other grains, it can easily be grown in rotations. Almost 14 percent protein, buckwheat is high in vitamins and minerals and can significantly boost the nutritional value of foods. Buckwheat is most commonly used in Japanese soba noodles but is also being added to breads, pasta, canned meats, even ice cream cones.
The world’s buckwheat production is about three million tons annually. Russia accounts for about 90 percent; other producers include China, Japan, Poland, Canada, Brazil and the United States.
The United States produces about 24,000 tons per year, primarily in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Washington. Japan imports 80 percent of its buckwheat – 80,000 tons per year – from the United States and Canada.
The biggest U.S. producer is North Dakota with 24,000 acres – almost as much as Canada’s 30,000 acres. Minnesota is only a small producer with 4,000 acres. Yields generally range from 500 to 2,000 pounds per acre; the cool, moist climates of northern Minnesota yield about 1200 to 1600 pounds per acre.
Buckwheat is planted in late May to mid June; it can be planted up to July 1, but yields will be reduced. Traditional small grain machinery can be used to plant and harvest buckwheat.
Buckwheat germinates in five to seven days, flowers in about five weeks and matures in 75 to 90 days. It requires less nitrogen than cereal crops as it is efficient at pulling phosphorous from the soil. It is competitive with other crops and many organic farmers include it in their rotations to suppress weeds. However, it wilts in hot weather and does poorly in drought conditions. Also, buckwheat does not tolerate frost, so an early freeze can severely affect yields.
Buckwheat yields are low, relative to small grains, because only 10 to 20 percent of its flowers develop seed heads. Because buckwheat is cross-pollinated and cannot be inbred, not much has been done to improve yields. However, a new high-starch, large-seeded variety, Koto, has been grown in Canada for about three years.
Despite low yields, buckwheat is profitable, with an average return of $83 per acre; spring wheat is about $35 per acre. Producers can sell food-grade buckwheat for about 10 cents per pound, although prices up to 13 or 14 cents are possible. The hulls bring 50 cents per pound.
The human body can use 74 percent of the available protein in buckwheat. The seed has twice the lysine of wheat and white rice and is virtually free of fat and gluten. It requires little cooking and has good shelf life.
Sterols, polyphenols, fagopyritol and rutin in buckwheat help rid the blood of cholesterol. Rutin keeps capillaries and arteries strong and flexible. Buckwheat also contains choline, good for liver health, and is high in vitamins B1 and B2, potassium, magnesium, phosphate, iron, vitamin E and dietary fiber. There is some evidence that buckwheat can help manage blood sugar levels and reduce blood pressure.
Areas of opportunity
Food products: Buckwheat is used in Japanese-style soba noodles. Minn-Dak Growers Ltd., of Grand Forks, N.D. has been supplying buckwheat to the Japanese for over 20 years, primarily flour for pasta. The processor is now developing other buckwheat products, including bread mixes, tortilla wraps and a puffed snack. Meat extenders, pancakes, syrups, cereals, desserts and soups can all be made with buckwheat. The roasted groats (dehulled seeds), called “kasha,” are popular in cereals.
Functional ingredients: Buckwheat is used in energy bars and some gluten-free foods. The starch can replace fat in processed foods.
Hulls: One bushel of buckwheat yields 18 pounds of hulls, used in landscaping mulches, packing materials and even therapeutic pillows and mattresses.
Export markets: Producers can contract for Japanese markets, which use about 100,000 tons of buckwheat per year; 80 percent is imported. In Eastern Europe, buckwheat flour is used like wheat flour; kasha (the roasted seed) is popular in Central Europe.