Buckwheat is a curious crop. It’s not new or exotic; it was planted in Western Canada as early as 1925. It’s familiar to most Canadians in its various forms — pancakes, soba noodles, or groats (also known as kasha) to name three. There is high demand for it on the Japanese market yet only a smattering of farmers across the Prairies plant it. 2014 saw about 500 acres sown in Alberta, very few in Saskatchewan, and less than 5,000 in Manitoba.
Historically, Manitoba has produced about 70 per cent of Canada’s buckwheat crop, while Ontario and Quebec grow the other 30 per cent between them. In the late 1970s, national buckwheat production peaked at about 150,000 acres. Average production in Manitoba hovered between 20,000 to 30,000 acres over the next two decades or so, then dropped steeply in 2007. Several factors have contributed to buckwheat’s downfall:
- Viterra, a major contractor, terminated small or special grains contracts.
- China’s buckwheat supply, lower production costs, and geographical convenience have eroded Canada’s share of the Japanese market.
- Farmers have turned to more lucrative crops such as canola and soybeans.
- Farmers faced difficult growing and harvesting conditions — including floods.
Despite its long history on the Prairies, buckwheat wavers on the edge of being a feasible minor crop in Western Canada.
Buckwheat is tricky to market
According to Rejean Picard, farm production advisor specializing in buckwheat, with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, North American buckwheat is the highest quality in the world. Yet it can’t go head-to-head with Chinese buckwheat, which, despite its bitter taste and the foreign material often found in it, sells for one-third less than North American buckwheat.
Japan is the largest customer for Canadian buckwheat. In Japan, only new crop buckwheat is used to grind into flour to make popular soba noodles. If the buckwheat has been stored, the flavour and colour of the noodles are affected. Farmers can’t keep buckwheat over a year, nor can they mix new and old crop.
Manitoba’s inland location makes accessing the Japanese market hard for growers. Distance is not the only issue; the service offered by the railways creates difficulties too. Lorne Kyle, president of Springfield Mills in Oakbank, Manitoba, which ships food-grade buckwheat to Japan, once had a carload of buckwheat that took 49 days to reach the coast.
Cereal grains in buckwheat can lead to a loss in grade. They can be difficult to clean out because only one herbicide is registered for use on buckwheat. There is also a shortage of cleaning facilities that are able to handle buckwheat post-harvest and bring it to a level of cleanliness that the overseas market requires.
Getting the weight on buckwheat is a challenge for growers, says Lorne Kyle. Food-grade buckwheat must reach a minimum of 46 pounds/bushel. Lighter buckwheat, say at 42 pounds/bushel, won’t make food grade but it can go to the birdseed market. Unfortunately, Kyle says, that market “comes and goes.” If birdseed is not an option, farmers have to sell their crop for cattle feed.
Though buckwheat can be used for human food, livestock feed, green manure, and honey production, the domestic demand is small. Marta Izydorczyk, research scientist, and program manager for barley and other grains with the Canadian Grain Commission, has spent 10 years researching the value of buckwheat as a food. “It is such a good crop. Everything is there. It has bioactive components such as rutin, proteins that are more nutritious than cereal grains, and it’s gluten-free which, at this time, is buckwheat’s best ‘hook.’” But food processors are not picking it up. Rejean Picard believes that “the taste remains an issue.”
Buckwheat can be tricky to grow
Buckwheat can be a challenging crop. Pedigreed seed is available from just three growers: Springfield Mill, Fisher Seeds and Durand Seeds, all in Manitoba. Buckwheat is susceptible to frost which has an impact on both ends of the growing season. It requires cross-pollination. Even with self-pollinating varieties farmers will experience much higher yields if they place hives on their fields.
Buckwheat has a shallow tap root system and a hollow stem so it is susceptible to lodging. High-nitrogen soils, winds and rain, and desiccation all damage the crop. Buckwheat doesn’t mature uniformly so shattering can be an issue during harvest. Because producers may choose to combine buckwheat at a higher moisture level in order to reduce shattering, drying is often necessary. Buckwheat can be stored at 16 per cent moisture. Yields can be highly variable — anywhere from five to 40 bushels per acre.
The biggest hurdle that buckwheat producers must overcome is a lack of options when it comes to weed control. Just one herbicide — Poast Ultra — is registered for use on buckwheat. It’s not recommended for Manitoba and it only controls grassy weeds. Lorne Kyle pinpoints two of the most troublesome broad-leaf weeds that growers cannot easily clean out of buckwheat: round-leaf mallow and wild radish. Since one seedpod can drop seven to eight seeds, keeping pedigreed seed weed-free is very difficult. Two products have been identified for use on buckwheat but, Rejean Picard says, they are not yet licensed. “We continue to look for potential new herbicides that may be effective for buckwheat.”
Growing buckwheat is cheap
Both Kyle and Picard point out that buckwheat is not as expensive to grow as cereals or canola. Buckwheat needs less nitrogen than most cereal grains and it is also able to retrieve phosphorus from the soil very efficiently. Generally, less herbicide is applied. “With some moderate fertility and weed management, producers can make some money,” Picard says. Last year’s yield was unusually high at 40 bushels/acre; growers in Manitoba usually average 17 to 18 bushels. Prices have been as high as $15 to $16 per bushel, but right now they are in the $11 to $12 range. On average, growers plant about 80 to 100 acres of buckwheat. “If yields are in the high 20s to low 30s,” Picard says, “There’s some money to be made.”
Buckwheat crops can thrive under the growing conditions on the Canadian Prairies. It does well on marginal land and no special equipment is required. Because it is sensitive to frost, it’s usually planted in early June, so growers can easily fit into the schedule alongside other crops that are planted earlier. There are no registered seed treatments for buckwheat, but because it is sown late and comes up quickly, that is generally not an issue.
Picard describes buckwheat as “a very competitive crop.” If it has an edge, it’s a good smother crop. Picard encourages growers to do everything they can to give their crop that “edge” so that weeds are less of a problem. With a dearth of effective herbicides, growers may turn to other management techniques for weed control. For instance, experiments have shown that growing buckwheat in wider rows can be effective since farmers can cultivate between the rows. Farmers must choose their fields carefully before planting. Because of the late sowing date, they have time to deal with weeds pre-planting. Buckwheat has very few disease and insect issues.
Typically, buckwheat doesn’t reach maturity until mid-September. Usually the time to swath is when the 80 per cent of the seeds formed have turned black or dark brown or if a heavy frost has burned through the canopy. “By the time it’s cut and harvested,” Picard says, “you’re well into October.” The good thing is, according to Kyle, is that if it’s not a heavy frost, the green seed will continue to mature and still make food grade.
With some adjustments, producers can easily fit it into their rotation.
Buckwheat’s future uncertain
Buckwheat research programs have been reduced or eliminated. Currently Mancan Genetics is the only buckwheat breeding company in operation. Because it’s a small crop, Kyle feels the industry doesn’t have an impact on the government. Picard is hopeful nonetheless. “New farmers are interested. I get a couple of calls a week year-round.” Izydorczyk believes that buckwheat’s star can rise again as long as there is a coordinated effort between farmers, scientists, and processors. She thinks growth should be focused on expanding North American markets, increasing the number of food processors and food products, tying into the gluten-free movement, and developing a western Canadian brand.
Izydorczyk says, “There is no downside. By expanding the domestic buckwheat market, we diversify our diets and our farms.” “But,” she cautions, “We cannot wait for some kind of a miracle. We have to work.”