Buckwheat offers advantages in right situation

Acres have fallen drastically in Manitoba, but proponents say the crop can still play a role in farmers’ rotations

Many farmers may have dismissed buckwheat as an option for their rotations. After all, in terms of yields and markets, buckwheat can’t compete with canola, soybeans and wheat.

From a high of 100,000 or more acres seeded in the 1970s and 1980s in Manitoba, buckwheat fell to 6,766 acres last year.

However, that’s still an increase of about 40 percent from acres seeded in 2018, but still a sharp drop from the big years of last century.

“It’s just fallen off,” says crop specialist Scott Chalmers, who manages the diversification centre in Melita. “It’s one of the smallest crops we have in Manitoba,” down there with flax (40,500 acres) and hemp (10,000 acres).

But that’s not the whole story. Chalmers is quick to add that nutritious buckwheat (the cereal, not the weed), can have a positive role in farmers’ rotations, especially those that practice organic or regenerative farming.

It competes well with weeds and it’s fast growing with the right moisture.

As well, buckwheat roots give off acidic organic compounds that break down rock and release phosphorus for the next growing season.

It also sends down deep roots, “deeper than peas,” says Chalmers, which makes it drought tolerant.

An exceptional selling point, especially in today’s competitive consumer market, is its appeal as a gluten-free grain high in fibre and minerals with protein. In other words, Chalmers says, people are turning to buckwheat because it’s good for you.

Popular among Ukrainian settlers on the Prairies, buckwheat remains a staple grain in Ukraine. Many in the war-torn east near Russia depend on buckwheat. They fry and brown the groats and then boil them to make a side dish for greens and meats, or use it as a meal in itself. It makes a good porridge.

In North America, buckwheat is commonly used in cabbage rolls, says Rejean Picard of the Manitoba Buckwheat Growers Association. In Japan, a key export market, “they make a noodle out of it” called soba.

The United States is another big market for Canadian buckwheat.

“It’s a very competitive crop,” Picard said. “Once planted in early June, it grows fast and competes well with weeds. That’s one of the reasons many organic growers use buckwheat in their rotation.”

Most Manitoba buckwheat is conventionally grown. Last year saw average yields of 22 bushels per acre and about $13 per bu., Picard said, compared to wheat at 65 bu. per acre at about $7.

Brooks White is a fifth-generation producer near Lyleton in Manitoba’s southwest. He and his family operate a regenerative farm focused on a diverse cropping system and few chemicals, and buckwheat fits their plans.

They just finished their second year of growing it, said the 40-year-old farmer, and so far so good.

“It’s amazing how fast it grows.”

They seeded 75 acres last June 25 and by the third week in July it was up and flowering. White also likes how the late seeding spreads out the workload.

Another advantage is how buckwheat feeds the soil. The Whites have stopped using phosphate fertilizers, and buckwheat has a strong association with phosphate uptake. There is a relationship between the plant and fungi that enriches the soil.

White also likes buckwheat as a cover crop and forage for their bison.

So while wheat, soybeans and canola are better producers of cash flow, buckwheat has enduring merits, another being that it produces good honey — the famous dark buckwheat honey, if hives are nearby.

White has a partnership with a beekeeper from Goodlands, Man., and says the benefits run both ways: the farm gets the needed pollination and the beekeeper, the honey.

Chalmers recommends swathing it rather than straight cutting.

“The stems are too juicy. It doesn’t take much to plug a combine,” he said.

White agrees: he swathed last fall’s crop. But with snow in early October the buckwheat didn’t get harvested and is still in the field. He thinks it could be fine. If nothing else, the outcome will add to his growing knowledge about an interesting grain.

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