Updated May 2017 by Emily Tai, graduate student, Huntley College of Agriculture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), known as kasha in Eastern Europe, is thought to have originated in China and was planted as early as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Today, China and Russia are the largest producers of buckwheat, which is known to have a good protein and vitamin composition. Despite this, it remains a minor crop in the United States, with around 25,000 acres planted each year. Almost all of that buckwheat is produced under contract for export.
In the United States, 337 farms harvested a total of 24,760 acres of buckwheat, producing 711,173 bushels, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (2009). While the largest number of buckwheat farms were located in New York, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota in 2007, the largest quantity of buckwheat was harvested in Washington, North Dakota, and New York. Buckwheat is also grown in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
China was the leading buckwheat producer in 2011, followed by Poland, Brazil, and Russia, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Because of its strong export market, buckwheat is almost always produced under contract, and that practice is likely to continue.
Buckwheat is a relatively low input crop that has relatively high yields even in marginal soil. Because it adds nutrients to the soil, it makes a good cover crop or rotational crop. While the environmental benefits of buckwheat are difficult to measure, some studies have been done to show that it is cost effective as a double crop.
Buckwheat grows quickly, with a 30-day maturity rate that allows it to kill off most competing weeds. Due to its fast growth, it is a good candidate for a catch crop when others have failed, and it also fits well into rotations. In addition, it is economical to produce because it requires no pesticides and few herbicides, draws phosphorus efficiently from the soil, and needs less nitrogen. While it requires little care from sowing to harvest, good seedbed preparation is important. Buckwheat is used as a cover crop or a rotational crop because it can grow in even poor soil; it also is often used to prepare organic crop soil because it can eliminate weeds. It can add up to 3,000 pounds of organic matter per acre back into the soil when tilled.
Partially due to limited breeding in recent decades, buckwheat has modest yields compared to other crops, typically yielding around 800 to 1,200 pounds per acre in Missouri. In optimal conditions, buckwheat can yield up to 1,500 pounds per acre, comparable to the North Central and Northeast states that are major sites of buckwheat production. On the other hand, a hot, dry period in late August or early September can reduce buckwheat yields and compound the effects of drought. For buckwheat, it may be more important to consider night temperatures than day temperatures.
Buckwheat production has been limited in the past due to both small markets and relatively low yield. Still, it has made a niche in the market because of its desirable food characteristics and unique status as a short season crop that can be planted late in the season. In most of its areas of growth, buckwheat can be used as the sole summer crop as a late plant alternative where regular crops have failed. In Missouri, it can be grown as a double crop after wheat where soybeans aren’t feasible. In fact, it may be most economically feasible when planted as an emergency crop. While it has been suggested that wheat residue can negatively affect buckwheat, this hasn’t been documented.
Like soybeans, buckwheat leaves little residue when used in rotation planting, meaning that soil can be in erodible condition after harvest. A good way to conserve soil 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 soils. Buckwheat can tolerate acidity down to pH 5, but it isn’t ideal for soils that are prone to crusting, since that can cause emergence problems for the seedlings.
As with most grains, it is important to prepare a firm seedbed for buckwheat if the field is tilled. When no-till planting, adjustments need to be made to ensure that the soil closes over the seed furrow.
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 seed or 40 pounds of small seed is recommended per acre of planted buckwheat, translating to around 700,000 plants per acre. Because buckwheat can compensate somewhat for a thin stand by branching more, studies show little yield response to seeding rate.
In Missouri, when buckwheat is planted in late July or early August, it 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. In the past, the highest buckwheat yields for Columbia occurred in 1991 and 1992, when buckwheat was planted between July 15 and August 1, but an early July due can result in a good yield if weather conditions are appropriate.
If buckwheat is being planted for reasons other than grain harvest, it can be planted at any date after the spring frost-free date. But for grain harvesting, it is most desirable to plant buckwheat relatively late in the summer, when flowering and seed set are more likely due to cooler days and nights.
Typically, seedings are planted 1 to 2 inches deep depending on soil moisture, and drilled in narrow rows that are typically 6 to 7 inches. This allows for a good canopy that can shade out weeds and produce optimum yield. Most standard grain drills work well with buckwheat, but broadcast seeding is not recommended unless the buckwheat is only to be used as a cover crop or a source of nectar for honey production. In warm soils, the seedling can emerge in four to five days.
In warm soil conditions, buckwheat emerges quickly and reaches a height of 2 to 4 feet. Because of its small, shallow rooting system, it is not particularly drought tolerant. But it may avoid midsummer droughts if it is planted late. During hot, dry afternoons, buckwheat can temporarily wilt. Its branches are primarily in the upper canopy, with leaves that are alternate and heart shaped, usually 2 to3 inches long. If buckwheat is seeded in narrow rows, it develops a thick crop canopy within a few weeks of planting.
Like soybeans, 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. While cool, moist conditions also aid in seed set, many flowers will still abort regardless.
Because buckwheat varieties are not hybrids, harvested seeds can be successfully used for replanting the next year, but many contracting companies still prefer that the grower uses certified seed every year.
While many growers don’t fertilize buckwheat due to its relatively low value and modest fertilization needs, some may be necessary for optimum yields. For example, if soil nitrogen is depleted, nitrogen fertilizer may improve growth, though more than 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre may lead to lodging. For soil that tests medium to high in phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), buckwheat doesn’t need fertilization, but it may be recommended for soils low in P or K for optimum yields. Buckwheat can capture soil P and rock fertilizer P well, making it available for the next crop in the rotation when buckwheat residue breaks down.
Currently, there are no herbicides registered for buckwheat in the United States. Because of this, growers must rely on sensible field selection, pre-plant weed control, and a uniform, dense crop canopy to shade out weeds from the late season rain. Tillage before planting can control existing weeds and provide a good seedbed, but excessive tillage can dry out the seed bed. While buckwheat will reseed, it can be controlled by tillage or broadleaf herbicides (such as trifluralin, triazine, and sulfonylurea), making it unlikely to present a weed problem for following crops.
For concerns with buckwheat’s reaction to herbicides, a small area of buckwheat can be hand planted nearby three weeks prior to the target field seeding date to check for herbicide injury in the growing buckwheat.
Buckwheat has few reported pests, some of which include aphids, wireworms, and Japanese beetles, though this may be because it is not extensively grown. While Rhizoctonia root may occur, other diseases are rare. On the other hand, deer or other wildlife may cause localized damage. Overall, pests are unlikely to cause significant loss in a buckwheat field.
Buckwheat is a three-sided, teardrop-shaped seed with a dark brown hull that is classified as a fruit rather than a grain. 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, removing around 18 to 20 percent of the entire grain weight. The second milling removes the middlings, which takes away another 4 to 18 percent of the whole grain weight. This point in the processing produces light brown buckwheat flour, and white flour can be produced with more milling.
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. However, swathing has to balance against the potential for wet and cold fall weather, which makes dry-down and pick-up of a windrow relatively difficult.
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.
Combine cylinder speed should be 600 to 800 rpm, with the concave set initially at a half inch, then adjusted for seed side. Avoid cracking the hull, especially if the crop is intended for the food market.
A discount is usually charged if the grain is brought to an elevator at more than 16 percent moisture, and temperatures greater than 110 degrees Fahrenheit should be avoided for drying buckwheat. While 16 percent moisture is fine for short term storage, grain should be kept at no more than 13 percent moisture for longer term storage.
While desired test weights vary by company, they are typically 45 or 46 pounds per bushel, with a historical test weight listed at 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 undesirable 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 sell the crop earlier, as the darkened grains reduce the appeal to certain buyers in the market.
Cost 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
While the average yield of buckwheat is 17 to 18 bushels per acre, Manitoba saw an unusually high yield of 40 bushels per acre in 2014, according to Grainews.
Since the buckwheat contract price is normally close to 10 cents per pound – it can rise to 13 cents per pound when supplies are low – yields between 350 and 8,000 pounds per acre are usually required to make a profit. While these yields are realistic, buckwheat is an alternative crop and can be riskier than a traditional crop as a result. It could be beneficial to start with moderate acreage to gain experience. Transportation costs can also reduce profits if there are no delivery points nearby, and while using buckwheat as an on-farm feed source may not be profitable, it might help meet other farm goals. While the economic benefit to including buckwheat in crop rotation is difficult to estimate, its benefits should still be considered.
If buckwheat were produced as a double crop, it would only have to cover variable costs, since the main crop would cover the fixed cost. With this cost structure, and using the average price of buckwheat as 10 cents per pound, break-even yields would range from 320 to 860 pounds per acre, or seven to 18 bushels per acre, according to one study. Experienced Illinois producers report typical yields of 750 to 1,000 pounds per acre, which would be approximately 15 to 21 bushels per acre.
In 2015 the price of buckwheat was around $11 to $12 per bushel, though it could get as high as $15 to16 per bushel, according to Grainews.
Buckwheat, which is gluten free, has been traditionally used for both human consumption and livestock feed. While buckwheat flour is mostly used for pancakes, it can also be used in baked goods, as long as it is mixed with semolina or wheat flour, both of which contain gluten. Buckwheat is also used for soba noodles, which are long, spaghetti-like noodles that are a staple of the Japanese diet. 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.
Buckwheat is known as a nutritional powerhouse, giving it much potential for pharmaceutical and nutraceutical possibilities. Seventy-four percent of the protein in buckwheat is available to the human body, making it one of the best sources of plant-based protein. It also contains eight essential amino acids, vitamin E, and almost the entire vitamin B complex spectrum. Buckwheat is also virtually fat free, with complex carbohydrates that can slow the development of obesity. Researchers have found that honey collected from bees feeding off of buckwheat contained levels of antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, 20 times higher than that of other honey tested, according to an article published in the Journal of Apicultural Research and written by scientists at the University of Illinois-Urbana. These antioxidants have been shown to prevent ailments such as cancer, high cholesterol, and heart disease. 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.
Co-ops have been formed across the United States, allowing producers to pool production resources to receive premiums for large volume as well as save on transportation costs. To keep these costs down, buckwheat is typically contracted close to the receiving houses. Some co-ops recognized the benefit of producing organic buckwheat, and as a result have worked to form niche markets for their product. Since buckwheat is popular with deer, some producers have also looked into it as a deer supplement for extreme winters.
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. Because Minn-Dak wholesales their pure buckwheat flour to food processors, their label does not appear on store shelves.
On the other hand, Birkett Mills sells their buckwheat flour under the Pocono brand name. In February 2012, Birkett Mills paid growers under contract $27 per cwt of conventional buckwheat and $31 per cwt of organic buckwheat, which was identical to 2011 contract prices and 35 percent higher than 2010 contract prices. Because of the strong worldwide demand for buckwheat, the company was able to maintain its record-high prices for buckwheat. Other buckwheat mills include Bob’s Red Mill (Oregon), Arrowhead Mill (New York) and Bouchard Family Farm (Maine).
There are relatively few varieties of buckwheat readily available in the United States, since most farm suppliers sell a “common’ buckwheat” that has not been maintained as a pure variety. On the other hand, most buyers, especially those exporting to Japan, will specify the variety that is to be used as part of the production contract. Larger seed varieties, such as Mancan and Manor, are almost always desired for food use. These seeds were developed by Agriculture Canada and are available in the United States. Winsor Grain Inc. has a large-seeded type called Winsor Royal that is released as a U.S. variety.
Roughly 60,000 to 70,000 acres of buckwheat have been grown in the United States in recent years, and more than 4 million acres are grown worldwide. Demand for buckwheat as a food source in the United States is relatively small, but it is regaining some popularity due to its strong export market, with Japan being the main importer.