By Michael Boland, University of Minnesota.
Revised February 2013 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), thought to have originated in China, was planted as early as 5,000 or 6,000 years ago. Today, China and Russia are the largest producers of buckwheat, or kasha, the name used for the crop in Eastern Europe.
Buckwheat remains a minor crop in the United States. Around 25,000 acres of buckwheat are planted each year; almost all of it is produced under contract.
According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (2009), 337 farms harvested 24,760 acres of buckwheat in 2007, producing 711,173 bushels of the crop. The largest number of buckwheat farms were located in New York (83), Pennsylvania (71) and North Dakota (61) in 2007, but the largest quantity of buckwheat was harvested in Washington (308,700 bushels), North Dakota (213,800 bushels) and New York (47,800 bushels). With one exception, the number of farms, of acres harvested and of bushels produced declined since the previous 2002 census. Washington increased the quantity of buckwheat produced in the state by 55,000 bushels.
Buckwheat is also grown in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The United States was the world’s fifth largest producer of buckwheat in 2011. China was the leading producer that year, followed by Poland, Brazil and Russia. (FAO 2011)
Buckwheat is almost always produced under contract, and due to the strong export market, that practice is likely to continue. Co-ops have been formed across the United States, allowing producers to pool their production to receive premiums for large volume and to save on transportation costs. Therefore, buckwheat is typically contracted close to the receiving houses to keep those costs down.
Some co-ops have recognized the benefits of producing organic buckwheat and have worked to form niche markets for their product. Some producers have observed that buckwheat is popular with deer and are looking into it as a deer supplement during extreme winters.
Buckwheat is a relatively low input crop with relatively high yields, even in marginal soil. It adds nutrients to the soil, making it a good cover crop or rotational crop. The environmental benefits of buckwheat are difficult to measure; however, some studies have been done to show the cost effectiveness of using buckwheat as a double crop.
If buckwheat was produced as a double crop, the main crop would cover the fixed costs and the entire buckwheat crop would only have to cover variable costs. Anything above that is profit. Given this cost structure and using an average price of $0.10 per pound, break-even yields would be anywhere from 320 to 860 pounds per acre or 7 to 18 bushels per acre, accordig to one study. Experienced Illinois producers reported that yields typically run from 750 to1,000 pounds per acre, which would be approximately 15 to 21 bushels per acre.
Buckwheat grows quickly. Its 30-day maturity rate allows it to kill off most weeds that would compete for its resources. This fast-growing characteristic also makes it a good candidate for a catch crop where other crops failed and helps it fit well into rotations. It is quite economical to produce because it requires no pesticides and very little fertilizer. It virtually requires no care from sowing until harvest; however, preparation of a fine seedbed is very important. Buckwheat is typically seen as a cover crop or rotational crop. It can grow even in poor soils, and since buckwheat naturally eliminates weeds, it is often used to prepare the soil for organic crops. Not only will buckwheat suppress weeds, it can also add up to 3,000 pounds of organic material per acre when it is tilled back into the soil.
Buckwheat is a three-sided, teardrop-shaped seed with a dark brown hull and is actually classified as a fruit rather than a grain. Seed size depends on the variety but typically ranges from 4 mm at maximum width and 6 mm long to 2 mm wide and 4 mm long. The seed is made of a hull, inner layer and inside the seed coat is a starchy endosperm and the germ. During the milling process, the hull is removed, which makes up about 18 to 20 percent of the entire grain weight. During the second milling, the middlings are removed, which takes away another 4 to 18 percent of the whole grain weight. At this point, light brown buckwheat flour is produced, and with more milling, white flour is produced.
The two major producers of buckwheat products in the United States are Minn-Dak Growers (North Dakota) and Birkett Mills (New York). Minn-Dak, which has the largest dedicated buckwheat milling facility in North America, exports most of its total buckwheat production as a raw product. The company wholesales their essentially pure buckwheat flour to food processors, so there is no Minn-Dak label on store shelves.
Birkett Mills buckwheat flour is sold under the Pocono brand name. As of February 2012, Birkett Mills was paying growers under contract $27 per cwt for conventional buckwheat and $31 per cwt for organic buckwheat, identical to 2011 contract prices and 35 percent higher than the 2010 contract price. The worldwide demand for buckwheat continued to be strong, enabling the company to maintain its record high price for buckwheat. Other buckwheat mills include Bob’s Red Mill (Oregon), Arrowhead Mill (New York) and Bouchard Family Farm (Maine).
Buckwheat has traditionally been used for human consumption as well as for livestock feed. Most buckwheat flour is used for pancakes. It can also be used in baked goods but must be mixed with semolina or wheat flour because buckwheat lacks gluten. Another common product is soba noodles, which are long, spaghetti-like noodles and a staple in the Japanese diet. Cracked groats can be sold as grits, and roasted groats can be sold as kasha, a popular food in Eastern Europe and Russia. Manufacturers of beer and ice cream also use buckwheat.
Whole buckwheat grain can be used in poultry scratch feed mixtures. The middlings are high in protein and therefore are good for livestock feeds, such as hog and chicken feed. Markets have also been formed for the co-products of buckwheat. Buckwheat straw is higher in protein than grass grain straw but is lower in digestible carbohydrates. Flattened buckwheat hulls can be used as landscaping mulch. Buckwheat hulls are also sold to make packing material, heating pads, mattresses and lightweight hull-filled pillows, which are popular for firm neck support.
Buckwheat is known as a nutritional powerhouse and has much potential for pharmaceutical and nutraceutical possibilities. The human body can use 74 percent of the protein available in buckwheat. This rates it as one of the best sources of protein in the plant kingdom. It contains all eight essential amino acids, vitamin E and almost the entire B complex spectrum. Many health claims exist for buckwheat; for example, that it can help diabetics’ bodies respond to insulin. It has also been shown to help people who suffer from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and celiac disease. Buckwheat is virtually fat free, and the complex carbohydrates can also help to slow the development of obesity. An article published in the Journal of Apicultural Research and written by scientists at the University of Illinois-Urbana reported that honey collected from bees feeding off of buckwheat contained levels of antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, twenty times higher than that of other honey tested. Antioxidants have been shown to prevent many ailments including cancer, high cholesterol and heart disease.
Exports and Imports
The United States exported buckwheat valued at $14.6 million in 2012, an 11 percent drop from the previous year. Japan remains, by far, the leading export market for U.S. buckwheat, purchasing buckwheat valued at $14.1 million. Despite an 11 percent decline in value from 2011, Japan still bought 96 percent of the U.S. buckwheat exported in 2012. (FAS 2012)
The value of buckwheat imported into the United States also dropped, falling 27 percent to $5.4 million. The buckwheat originated in China, Canada and Russia. Japan and Canada were the leading sources of buckwheat flour. (FAS 2012
Birkett Mills - Producer of buckwheat products and a buckwheat buyer.
Buckwheat, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.
Buckwheat, Food and Ag Organization (FAO), United Nations, 2011.
Buckwheat, Field Crops: 2007 and 2002, 2007 Census of Ag, National Ag Statistics Service, USDA, 2009.
Buckwheat Cover Crop Handbook, Cornell University, 2008 - This publication provides a detailed account of situations in which buckwheat is an economical cover crop because it controls weeds so well.
Buckwheat Growers Association of Minnesota - Local Minnesota growers organized a farmer-owned and farmer-operated cooperative in 1997.
Global Ag Trade System, Foreign Ag Service, USDA.
Minn-Dak Growers, Ltd. - A North Dakota-based specialty crops marketing company.
Northeast Buckwheat Growers Newsletter, Cornell University, 2010.
Links checked January 2013.