The Benefits of Buckwheat

9/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

Field Day Shows Crop’s Versatility for NY Growers



NEWFIELD, N.Y. — Whether you want a cover crop, soil improvement, or to produce seed for re-seeding or flour, buckwheat should be on your “consider list,” Thomas Björkman says.

Björkman, Cornell horticulture professor and buckwheat specialist, organized the recent 18th Northeast Buckwheat Field Day held on the Thor Oeschner farm in Newfield, N.Y.

The field day attracted those experienced with the crop — including two farmers who had grown it for more than 65 years — and those wanting to learn if it would fit into their farming system.

The 30 or so people attending included producers from Ontario, Canada, western New York and Pennsylvania.

Buckwheat grows best in a cool, moist climate, such as what is found in many parts of the Northeast.

“During the 19th and 20th century, Tompkins County was a hot bed for buckwheat production,” Björkman said.

Buckwheat is native to northern Europe and Asia. It was introduced to the United States by the Dutch during the 17th century. The name was derived from the Dutch word “bockweit,” which means “beechwheat” — a nod to its resemblance to beech tree seeds and its wheat-like characteristics.

The seed of buckwheat is similar in size to wheat seed, but has a unique triangular shape and an outer hull which needs to be removed with specialized milling equipment.

Buckwheat is a relatively minor crop for the United States. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, 337 farms harvested 24,760 acres of buckwheat, producing 711,173 bushels of the crop. Although the largest number of buckwheat farms are found in New York (83), Pennsylvania (71) and North Dakota (61), the largest quantity of buckwheat was harvested in Washington (308,700 bushels), North Dakota (213,800 bushels) and New York (47,800 bushels).

Björkman discussed some of the aspects of buckwheat production, including seeding, how to use buckwheat in different rotations, and harvesting. Time of seeding and seeding depth are important, and this year both were very big issues due to lack of rain. Excess moisture can also be an issue, he said.

“Seedlings are enormously sensitive to water logging when germinating,” Björkman said.

Even though buckwheat can grow well on marginal land, preparing a good seed bed is time well invested.

“Seeding is the last operation before harvest — it is worth doing right,” Björkman said.

In most situations, fertilizer is not necessary. Sometimes a small amount of nitrogen will help with establishment, but too much will result in excess stem growth and potential lodging, he said. A good stand is critical no matter what the final use of the crop.

Seedlings should emerge at 3-5 days. If this doesn’t happen uniformly, it is probably best to disc it up and start over, he said. Leaf production occurs during the third through sixth week, with bloom and seed set in the sixth and seventh week, and seed filling beginning in the eighth week. The grain is mature 10-12 weeks after sowing.

Double cropping after a grain is a possibility. “It works well with no-till and also after corn,” Björkman said.

He used the host farm as an example of ways to utilize buckwheat in rotations. The Oeschner farm is a certified organic grain farm, which needs to have some break crops from the grass-type crops to allow for disease control, and to control weeds. Buckwheat can provide the weed control, as it germinates quickly and the dense leaf canopy soon covers the soil, making it a good smother crop.

Lower seeding rates may be better, Björkman said, particularly on more fertile soils. If the ground has good fertility, the buckwheat plants get too tall. The result is too much stem/plant, low seed yield and a stand which will readily lodge.

Björkman said 50 pounds per acre is a good place to start for ground of average fertility. Delaying planting is another option if the ground is highly fertile; however, for many producers in central New York, seeding around July 4 fits, and it is a time when things are a little less busy.

Most producers who grow buckwheat do so under contract. As one attendee said, “It is the only way to make any money.”

In New York state, Birkett Mills in Penn Yan and SeedWay are the two main contractors. This year they paid producers about 27 cents per pound for conventional seed and 31 cents per pound for organic seed. Contracts are usually available in mid-April.

Harvesting buckwheat was a much-discussed subject at the field day. As one grower said, “Combining green buckwheat takes a lot of time, as you have to get the settings right.”

Buckwheat can be harvested by windrowing or direct combining. Direct combining only requires one operation and can work if the plants are frost killed at maturity, but windrowing has proved to be so successful in the western United States and Canada that it is now the recommended method for the Northeast.

Windrowing or swathing is well suited to buckwheat due to the way it matures, with some immature seeds occurring on the plants at harvest. It can help to reduce shattering, which is often a major factor in yield reduction. As swathing is performed a few weeks earlier than direct combining, it provides a bigger window for the seeding and establishment of the next crop.

Swathing does require several operations and the producer needs to pay close attention to the weather, as the cut crop should cure for about seven days prior to being combined. Swathing is the harvest procedure now used on the host farm.

At the Oeschner farm, buckwheat was seeded in the sixth year of a seven-year rotation, with the previous seeding having been forage radish. The plants were taller than desired, possibly due to the high organic matter resulting from the previous forage radish crop.

Some lodging was apparent, the result of a wind storm that had come through in late July. Lodging is a major issue for growers of buckwheat in the Northeast. None of the varieties are immune to lodging, but according to the contract growers who attended the field day, the SeedWay variety stood well and has also yielded quite well.

Honeybees love buckwheat, and are useful for both pollination and producing a value-added product. Buckwheat honey was, in years past, relatively easy to find, but today it is more of a specialty item and can command a good price. A couple of the field day attendees were beekeepers.

With the aid of the crop at hand, Björkman showed that a buckwheat plant has a lot of very fine roots. “They act as soil looseners, but they only go until the soil gets hard,” he said.

Growing a field of buckwheat can do good things to soil structure and also can mobilize and recycle phosphorus.

Regarding seed set, Björkman said that the early August temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees normally experienced in central New York are ideal, but temperatures of 90 and above are very hard on buckwheat.

“In our region, expecting about 30 bushels per acre is not unrealistic,” he said.

If a grower wants the buckwheat as a green manure crop, rather than a seed crop, it is important to chop and plow prior to seed set, which would be just as it flowers and the field is white.

The only disease at issue in the New York region is sclerotinia, which causes stem rot resulting in lodging, Björkman said. Timely harvest is the only remedy.

The field day was sponsored by Cornell University and NOFA-NY.

For more information on buckwheat production for the Northeast, visit<\c> Photo by Helen Margaret Griffiths

Owner Thor Oeschner shows the Hesston 6450 swather he bought from a canola grower in Alberta, Canada. He said that swathing makes harvesting much easier, although this machine isn’t as adjustable as some other makes.

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