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Grown for its grainlike seed, buckwheat is eaten in many countries and regions throughout the world. It’s named for the resemblance of its seeds to those of beech trees and because its usage is similar to wheat. The groats (hulled seeds) are commonly eaten as porridge in Western Asia and Eastern Europe. And in Japan and North and South Korea, the groats are traditionally made into buckwheat noodles. Buckwheat is also starting to gain more popularity in Western Europe because of its health and nutritional qualities.
People cultivate buckwheat for many reasons. Being a short-season crop, buckwheat easily fits between crop rotations, during periods when fields might otherwise be idle. It’s economical to grow organically because of the plant’s low-fertilizer and no-pesticide requirements. Buckwheat can be grown as a cover crop to improve soil and suppress weeds, used as green fodder to feed livestock, and grown as a catch crop. Additionally, it’s a great nectar source for honeybees, potentially producing honey yields up to 450 pounds per acre.
Buckwheat’s Historical and Economical Importance
Buckwheat is believed to be native to Manchuria, China, and Siberia; it was likely first domesticated in Southeast Asia, and evidence suggests it’s been cultivated in China since 5,000 B.C. The cultivation of buckwheat spread to Europe around the 14th and 15th centuries, most likely from Russia and the Middle East, and its popularity grew. It was traditionally sown on burned, drained, and tilled bogs and required no fertilization. Moreover, it improved the soils over time. The straw was used for animal bedding, and the grain was made into pancakes or grits. Buckwheat was also one of the first crops European colonists introduced to North America.
From the 15th century onward, buckwheat was cultivated across Europe in areas where the climate and soil made it difficult to grow other grains. However, since the introduction of the potato to Europe in the mid-1500s – potatoes being another crop that thrives in relatively poor soils – buckwheat’s importance as a food source has decreased significantly. Cultivation declined sharply in the 20th century after the wide implementation of nitrogen fertilizer, to which maize and wheat respond strongly. Recently, buckwheat has started to gain popularity again as nutritional and vegetarian foods become more sought-after.
Nowadays, buckwheat is cultivated as a staple crop in some central and Eastern European countries, as well as in most of the former Soviet Union. Russia, China, and Ukraine lead in worldwide buckwheat production. In the United States, buckwheat is cultivated for grain in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and several other states.
Plow your soil several weeks before you sow your buckwheat seeds. Buckwheat thrives in soil that’s easily penetrable and has good drainage; hard or clay soils can cause lodging in plants. Though buckwheat has excellent acid resistance, it thrives best in neutral soils. It also grows better in low-fertility soils than other grains do; too much fertilizer will reduce the yield.
Generally, a buckwheat crop removes from the soil approximately 30 to 50 pounds per acre of nitrogen, 30 pounds per acre of phosphorus, and 50 pounds per acre of potassium, so plan accordingly how much fertilizer to apply before planting buckwheat, based on the health of your soil and what previously grew in it. Don’t use chloride-containing fertilizers on your buckwheat. Complete one application of nitrogen fertilizer, with a maximum application rate of 36 pounds per acre. Apply organic fertilizers well before planting buckwheat to ensure a good yield.
Sow buckwheat using conventional grain-drilling technology. Rolling after sowing will promote germination. If you’re growing buckwheat for grain use, sow the seeds about an inch deep at a rate of about 50 to 70 pounds per acre; if growing as a catch crop, sow at a rate of about 40 to 50 pounds per acre. Higher rates are needed if plant growth is likely to be slow, such as when the soil is cold, wet, or poorly prepared at sowing. Space your rows about 5 to 7 inches apart. (This sowing rate is based on a 90 percent germination rate. To determine the germination rate of seeds, sow 100 seeds – or sprout them in a jar – and count the ones that germinated.)
For the plants to set seed and have time to mature, sowing should be timed by region so as not to exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit after the flowering period starts (approximately four weeks after planting) and to have a minimum of 12 weeks mature time before frost. Check local weather predictions to determine your sowing date. The ideal temperature for growing buckwheat is 70 degrees, with cooler nights at the end of the growing period to synchronize seed ripening.
Buckwheat is normally harvested after 10 to 12 weeks, and the flowering sprout can be used as green fodder 6 to 9 weeks after sowing. Unlike wheat and soy, buckwheat cultivars aren’t bred to dry out completely, so plants may be ready to harvest while still green or blooming. Not all the grains will ripen simultaneously, so harvest when the maximum number of seeds are ripe – typically when about three-quarters of the seeds are brown and firm. Inspect closely, as some of the hulls may be empty; if early frosts occur, there’s a considerable grain loss.
If using a combine for harvesting, threshing must be carried out more gently than with other grain so as not to lose a lot of the grain during harvest. Set the grain- or maize-threshing basket wide, and set the speed of the blower and threshing drum to approximately 600 revolutions per minute. You can also harvest buckwheat by swathing. To do this, cut and dry the grain a week before threshing, which will allow the slightly unripe seeds to mature, increasing yield. Swathing is suitable for warmer regions, where the plants may have ripe seeds but haven’t lost most of their leaves. When swathing buckwheat, cut as high as possible for better air circulation when drying.
The average buckwheat yield is about 500 to 1,500 pounds per acre. After harvesting, clean and dry the buckwheat immediately. High crop moisture (more than 25 percent) can quickly lead to total spoilage. Post-harvest drying of the crop to approximately 14 percent is necessary for seed intended for production (dry at 104 degrees) and seed intended for consumer goods (dry at 122 degrees).
Buckwheat is commonly grown as a nectar source for honeybees, and it’s experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years, valued for its health benefits and how easy it is to produce at home.
Buckwheat honey holds a lot of distinct characteristics. While the common types of honey are golden in color, buckwheat honey is dark-amber, almost black, similar to forest honey. The taste also makes it a rarity: In contrast to most other kinds of honey, buckwheat honey has a strong, aromatic, and subtly sweet taste, rounded off with an intense grain aroma.
Not everyone likes buckwheat honey, because of its unusual taste. This may also be because we’re accustomed to the sweeter taste of light honey. Many traditional bakeries, however, appreciate the dark color and intense aroma of buckwheat honey and use it to make breads, pies, cookies, and more.
Whether you wish to harvest grains, protect and enhance your soil, or produce honey, buckwheat is a versatile and hardy option that can rise to the occasion in places where other plants may not.
Buckwheat Cultivar Comparisons
If you want to grow buckwheat, choose a cultivar that’s compatible with your Zone, climate, and growing purposes. Here are a few popular cultivars to try.
- Common buckwheat seeds are marketed simply as “common buckwheat,” without a maintained cultivar. Most of these are ‘Manor,’ ‘Mancan,’ or a mixture of the two. Common buckwheat is often grown as a cover crop.
- ‘Horizon’ is a large-seeded cultivar that had high yields in North Dakota and Canada trials. It has better test weight compared with other cultivars.
- ‘Keukett’ is a new cultivar whose seed is being bulked up for commercial trials in the Northeast.
- ‘Koma’ is large-seeded and high-yielding.
- ‘Koto’ became available to growers in 2002. It was commercially tested annually in New York from 1999 to 2001, outperforming ‘Manisoba’ in stress tolerance and by an average of 13 percent or more in yield.
- ‘Manisoba’ surpassed ‘Manor’ by about 10 percent in New York trials since 1995 and has been contracted since 2000. It’s the mainstay of production in the Northeast.
- ‘Manor’ and ‘Mancan’ are the standard cultivars of buckwheat that were developed in the 1990s. Both have large seeds that are required by customers who produce whole-grain cereals or soba (buckwheat noodles).
- ‘Springfield’ is a large-seeded cultivar that in North Dakota trials had higher yields than most other cultivars. ‘Springfield,’ along with ‘Koban,’ may have excellent yields in the Great Plains but may perform poorly in the Northeast.
Learn more about what buckwheat has to offer your nutrition and health in “Buckwheat Should Be a New Pantry Staple.”
Michael Feldmann is a farmer and writer by both hobby and profession. He’s been published in numerous farming publications, including Hobby Farms, Mother Earth News, Canadian Organic Growers, Farming Magazine, Farmers Weekly, Poultry World, and many others. Michael is currently based in Oklahoma, writing articles on every farm topic that interests him.