Buckwheat

Revised April 2024
buckwheat

Overview

Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), also known as kasha in Eastern Europe, is a pseudocereal (a crop with an end use like a cereal but is not in the grass family) that was first planted as a crop in China 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Currently, Russia and China are the largest producers of buckwheat. Buckwheat is a minor crop in the United States where it is planted on about 27,000 acres each year. In 2017 (the most recent agricultural census when these data were collected), buckwheat was grown in more than 20 states, with the majority being grown in North Dakota, Washington, Minnesota and New York. 

Production

Buckwheat requires low inputs relative to the yields it produces even on marginal soils. Because it develops a canopy quickly after planting, it makes a good cover crop or rotational crop. Buckwheat grows quickly, maturing in as little as 30 days and therefore is highly competitive with weeds. Moreover, its short maturity length makes it a good candidate for an emergency crop when an earlier-planted crop fails. Buckwheat can also be attractive to produce as it requires few pesticides and herbicides, draws phosphorus efficiently from the soil, and needs less nitrogen than other crops with similar yields. Buckwheat fits well as a crop in land that is in transition to organic production as it is highly suppressive of most weeds. Partially due to limited breeding in recent decades, buckwheat has modest yields compared to cereal crops grown in the same environment.

Buckwheat production in the USA has been constrained in the past due its limited market and its relatively low yield potential. Nevertheless, production is sustained at current levels because of its desirable food characteristics, export market and unique status as a short season crop that can be planted late in the season. In most areas where it is grown, buckwheat can be planted as the sole summer crop, either planted in the spring (more northern regions) or as a late planted alternative where the regular summer crop has failed. In central regions (i.e. Missouri), it can be grown as a double crop after wheat where soybeans aren’t feasible. In fact, it may be most economically feasible to grow buckwheat when planted as an emergency crop.

Like soybeans, buckwheat leaves little residue when used in rotation, meaning that the soil has little protection from erosion after harvest. A good way to include buckwheat in a cropping system that minimizes soil loss is a two-year rotation involving wheat, double-crop buckwheat, rye for winter cover, soybeans in the spring, then wheat again in the fall.  

While buckwheat tolerates relatively poorly drained or infertile soils better than most grains, its best yields are on medium-textured, well-drained soils. Growers should avoid heavy or drought-prone soils. Buckwheat can tolerate acidity down to pH 5. Crusting can significantly impact buckwheat emergence, so isn’t ideal for environments prone to crusting.

The key for buckwheat is to have a solid, even stand, which is a matter of good soil moisture and an appropriate planting date. Generally, 50 to 55 pounds of large seeds or 40 pounds of small seeds is recommended per acre of planted buckwheat, translating to around 700,000 plants per acre. Buckwheat can compensate somewhat for a thin stand if emergence is not optimal.

In Missouri, buckwheat planted in late July or early August usually matures in eight to 10 weeks. Though the northern half of Missouri shouldn’t plant buckwheat after the first week of August, the southern half can plant it as late as mid-August.

If buckwheat is being planted as a cover crop, it can be planted at any date after the spring frost-free date. When grown for grain, however, it is most desirable to plant buckwheat when flowering and seed set are more likely to occur when there are cooler days and nights but early enough to mature before the first killing frost. 

Most standard grain drills work well for planting buckwheat, with row widths of 6 to 7 inches being optimum for shading out weeds as it develops a complete canopy after a few weeks.  Broadcast seeding of buckwheat is not recommended unless it is as a cover crop or a source of nectar for honey production. In warm soils, buckwheat emerges in four to five days after planting. Buckwheat grows to a height of 2 to 4 feet. Because of its small, shallow rooting system, it is not particularly drought tolerant. It may avoid midsummer droughts if it is planted late, however.

Buckwheat produces flowers in an indeterminate fashion that can continue right up to harvest or frost. During peak bloom, the crop canopy is almost hidden under masses of white flowers. These flowers are self-sterile, and as a result, must be cross-fertilized by insects or the wind in order for seed set to occur.

Currently available buckwheat varieties are not hybrids so harvested seeds can be successfully used for replanting the next year. Nevertheless, many contracting companies may require the use of certified seed each year and usually dictate the variety to be grown. Few varieties of buckwheat are readily available in the United States. In some areas of the USA growers use “common buckwheat” varieties which have not been maintained as a pure variety. Most buyers, will specify the variety that is to be used as part of the production contract. Larger seed varieties are almost always preferred for food use.

While many growers don’t fertilize buckwheat due to its relatively low value and modest fertilization needs, some added fertilizer may be necessary for optimum yields. For soils with limited nitrogen, applying up to 50 lbs per acre of nitrogen may improve growth, though more than that may lead to lodging. Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) fertilizers are not recommended for soils that tests medium to high in these nutrients Buckwheat is noted for its ability to scavenge P from the soil.

In most states, sethoxydim is registered for grass weed control in buckwheat. Since this is the only in-season herbicide currently approved, growers must also rely on sensible field selection, pre-plant weed control, and a uniform, dense crop canopy to compete with weeds. Volunteer buckwheat is relatively easily controlled in other crops and it is not usually considered to be a weed problem in following crops.

Buckwheat is sensitive to the carryover several herbicides including treflan, atrazine and sulfonylurea products. For concerns with buckwheat’s reaction to herbicides that were applied to the previous crop, a small area of buckwheat can be hand-planted three weeks prior to the target field seeding date to check for injury from herbicide carryover. Buckwheat has few reported pests and they rarely cause significant yield loss. Therefore, there are no recommendations for the use of pesticides in buckwheat,

For many traditional buckwheat production areas, swathing is preferred over direct combining. Since some seeds mature before others and flowering can occur right up to harvest, swathing can reduce shatter loss and allow immature seeds to continue ripening before harvest. If the crop is going to be swathed, swathing should begin when 75 to 80 percent of the seeds in the upper part of the canopy are mature and brown. For direct combining, harvest should occur when 90 to 95 percent of the seeds are mature. In both cases, the stems and some leave are likely to still be green at harvest, since the crop, unlike soybeans or wheat, has not been bred for complete dry-down after it is mature.  

Processing

Buckwheat is a three-sided, teardrop-shaped seed with a dark brown hull that is classified as a fruit rather than a grain. The desired test weight of the harvested buckwheat may vary by company, but it is typically between 45 or 46 pounds per bushel. The historical test weight is listed as 48 pounds per bushel. Large seed varieties often have a test weight in the low 40s, so producers should be prepared to take a slight discount on test weight. While smaller-seeded varieties have higher test weights, they are generally considered less desirable for food markets. The groats are light colored when fresh and begin to darken a few months after harvest. Because of this, it is important to deliver the crop earlier, as the darkened grains reduce the appeal to certain buyers in the market. Seed size ranges from 4 millimeters by 6 millimeters to 2 millimeters by 4 millimeters and consists of a hull, inner layer, endosperm, and germ. The hull is removed during milling. The second milling removes the middlings and produces a light brown buckwheat flour. White flour can be produced with more milling.

Economics of Production

Seed - $15 to $25
Fertilizer - $0 to $20
Machinery operation - $10 to $15
Labor - $5 to $10
Transportation cost - $2 to $5
Drying and/or cleaning - $3 to $5
Total variable cost per acre - $35 to $80

The yield of buckwheat varies by environment and management practices. In the more traditional growing areas yields average between 1,000 to 1500 lbs per acre while elsewhere typical yields are between 800 to 1000 lbs per acre.  

When calculating the potential returns from buckwheat, land costs can be shared with the other crop, when double cropping. Also consider the cost of transport, if there is no delivery point nearby. For growers that have not grown buckwheat before, it is suggested that they start with a small acreage in order to gain experience.

The profitability of growing buckwheat also depends on the on the price received. Since most buckwheat is contracted this price can be determine prior to planting. The price range has been between 19 and 27 cents a pound during the past 10 years, with some more recent contracts as high as 40 cents a pound. Crop insurance for growing buckwheat is available in some counties where buckwheat has been grown in the recent past.

Marketing

Buckwheat is used for both human consumption and livestock feed. While buckwheat flour was traditionally used mostly for pancakes in the USA, it is now being added to a wide range of snack foods and baked goods. The growing interest in the use of buckwheat flour in the USA is partially driven by it being gluten free, but also because it is high in minerals and antioxidants. It also has a relatively low glycemic index and there are other purported health benefits. Recently the proportion of buckwheat that is grown in the USA that is used within USA has eclipsed the amount exported to Japan. In Japan, buckwheat is used for soba noodles, which are long, spaghetti-like noodles that are a staple of the Japanese diet. About 40% of the buckwheat produced in the USA is currently exported to Japan for this purpose. Cracked buckwheat groats can be sold as grits, while roasted groats can be sold as kasha, which is popular in Eastern Europe and Russia. Beer and ice cream manufacturers also use buckwheat in their products. 

Whole buckwheat grain can be used in poultry scratch feed mixtures. Because the middlings are high in protein, they are good for livestock feeds, such as hog and chicken feeds. Buckwheat straw is also higher in protein than grass grain straw, though it is lower in digestible carbohydrates. Flattened buckwheat hulls can be sold for landscaping mulch, packing material, heating pads, mattresses, and lightweight hull-filled pillows that are popular for firm neck support. 

The two major producers of buckwheat products in the United States are Minn-Dak growers (North Dakota) and Birkett Mills (New York). Other smaller millers of buckwheat include Bob’s Red Mill (Oregon), Arrowhead Mill (New York) and Bouchard Family Farm (Maine). These mills can be a good source of information about contracting opportunities for growing buckwheat. In a few areas of the USA, co-ops have been formed to allow producers to pool production resources, to receive premiums for large volumes as well as save on transportation costs.

Sources

Global Buckwheat Market Outlook (EMR, 2024)

Buckwheat, Food and Agriculture Organization

Global Ag Trade System, Foreign Ag Service, USDA.

USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Quick Stats

Buckwheat, Cornell University.

Production Guidelines

Buckwheat, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2002.

Buckwheat Production: Harvesting, Cornell University Cooperative Extension, 2010 - This fact sheet covers harvesting techniques.

Buckwheat Production: Planting, Cornell University Cooperative Extension, 2010.