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Information for Buckwheat Growers

Northeast Buckwheat Growers Newsletter

No. 7 June 1999
Edited by Thomas Bjorkman, Cornell NYSAES, Geneva NY

Essentials of raising buckwheat: a good start
One of the most common reasons to lose a crop of buckwheat is a slow start. A heavy rain before the seed has emerged will weaken the crop dramatically.

In 1998, thunderstorms over the July 4 weekend did in many buckwheat fields. Some were replanted immediately. About 20 acres in Yates County ended up being essentially a solid stand of ragweed. Another 20 acres in Tompkins County had about 50% emergence, but the plants were severely weakened. The thin stand of foot-tall plants assured a low yield, but weed pressure and an attack of aphids sealed its fate. A neighboring field sown four days later yielded normally.

Why did these disasters occur? The ground was well prepared, and the rain did not seem unusual for mid-summer. The problem is that buckwheat seed germination is seriously reduced if it sits in soil solution for even two hours. Research by Karen Pearson and Thomas Björkman at Geneva has shown that the damage is caused by a biological organism in the soil (still unidentified), and that seedlings become less sensitive the older they are.

What can be done to prevent such stand loss? First, good soil preparation. Avoid compacting or over-working the ground. Make sure that the structure allows water to run past the seed rather than standing, even briefly, in the seed zone. Where zone till has been in use for several years, the problem seems much less. If this system is appropriate for your farm, it appears to work well with buckwheat.

Second, avoid planting just before a thunderstorm. The temptation is strong to get the seed into dry ground and not have to wait until it is workable again. Resist this temptation. Don't plant on a day when thunderstorms are forecast for the afternoon. It is better to get the crop in late than to have it inundated the first few days after sowing.

In the future, there may be a third prevention. If Pythium seed rot is causing most of the stand loss, it should be possible to prevent it with an Apron seed treatment. This seed treatment is already registered for buckwheat. It is being tested this year by the Geneva Experiment Station in cooperation with AgriCulver, Novartis, Birkett Mills and local buckwheat farmers.

When does buckwheat make more money than corn?
At the end of corn planting season, some growers have been asking whether it is better to plant buckwheat than more corn. This is a good question this year.

Corn prices are very low, about $2 per bushel, and late corn has modest yields. There is not much money in it, so alternatives are worth considering.

Here is a sample crop budget comparison. It is on the assumption that you have a field that was plowed for planting corn on June 15, but are considering buckwheat instead. Compare it to your own yield expectations and costs.

Relative return of buckwheat and grain corn in a field not yet planted as of June 15, 1999
  Buckwheat Corn
$120 (20 bu @ $6)
$150 (75 bu @ 2)
Total variable
Net before fixed costs

The difference in fuel and equipment is because buckwheat requires only fitting, drilling and harvest, whereas corn also requires herbicide application and/or cultivation as well as handling and trucking nearly four times as much product.

Thanks to Bill Cox, Soil Crop & Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell, and to USDA-ERS for assistance on this budget.

1999 Field Day in August
The 1999 Buckwheat Field Day will be held on Tuesday, August 24, 1999 at the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. Put it on your calendar!

There will be demonstrations of variety improvement as well as fungicide seed treatment to improve crop establishment.

The field day will be from 1 to 3:30 pm at the Vegetable Research Farm, 1097 County Rd. #4, about 3/4 mile west of PreEmption Rd. (C.R. #6).

Status of new varieties
Research done by the Geneva Experiment Station with the support of Birkett Mills has shown high promise for Manisoba, and future potential for two additional varieties, Keukett and Koto. Lisa Blanchard and Thomas Björkman have evaluated germplasm developed with Clayton Campbell and Kade Research for use in the Northeast. In several years' investigation, these have been the strongest lines. Koto and Keukett are not in commercial trade yet because there is only breeders' seed in existence. Manisoba is not yet being contracted by The Birkett Mills, but is under active scrutiny.

Manisoba consistently yields about 10% more than Manor and has a larger groat. The yield performance of the other varieties has not been evaluated under commercial conditions yet, but the groat properties are at least as good as Manisoba. All future varieties are expected to have slightly larger and more consistent groat size. The size, uniformity, and flavor are seen as essential properties to compete in the premium buckwheat market.

Manisoba is currently being evaluated by Birkett Mills for production properties. This variety has a larger average seed size than Manor. A larger size should improve recovery in the mill, but it requires different screens and sorting. A mixture of old and new varieties would be difficult to manage.

The larger size could also affect cooking times and other properties of the consumer products. Birkett Mills will test Manisoba in the coming year to find how to adapt their products to the new varieties. They have made a considerable investment over the years in the research to create these improved varieties. They hope to reap the benefits soon.

Buckwheat treats diabetes
A new use for buckwheat should be the result of research from Cornell University. Professor Ralph Obendorf has discovered a carbohydrate in buckwheat seeds that could have major medical value in treating adult-onset diabetes.

The substance is called fagopyritol, from the Latin name of buckwheat. It is similar in structure to a compound that is missing in these diabetes patients. As a dietary supplement, it is predicted to lower and stabilize blood glucose by inducing synthesis of the missing insulin mediator. Fagopyritol makes of half of the soluble carbohydrate in buckwheat seed. The technology is being patented by Cornell, and has been licensed to MinnDak growers of Grand Forks ND. Steve Edwardson, their director of R&D, sees great promise for selling buckwheat bran for dietary diabetes management. Major pharmaceutical and neutraceutical companies are negotiating to develop specific products.

The world buckwheat market
The slow Japanese economy has markedly weakened demand for premium buckwheat. Most of the North American crop has gone there in the last 10 years. The top mills are still seeking the high grades they have found in North America. However, the emphasis is now in the price-sensitive lower grades. For inexpensive buckwheat, China has picked up production substantially. The situation resembles the widely-reported one with processed apples: the Chinese are marketing at a very low price and competing successfully against Northeastern producers in the lower quality end.

For instance, one processor is trying to cover the flavor of inexpensive foreign buckwheat. Comline reported last month that "to mask the distinctive bitterness inherent in soba noodles made from Chinese and Russian buckwheat, Mainichi Foods developed a manufacturing method that gives the noodles the same fragrance and sweetness of the domestic variety."

Buckwheat production has recently started up in Myanmar. Xinhua News Agency reports that Japan has begun a program to replace opium production with buckwheat in Myanmar's northern provinces. The relative profitability of opium and buckwheat was not reported!

The Birkett Mills offers revised production guide
The Birkett Mills booklet "Commercial Buckwheat Production in the Northeast" was revised and reissued in April, 1999. Contact Cliff Orr at The Birkett Mills, (315) 536-3311.

Crop insurance may be coming
In 1996, the USDA investigated the feasibility of offering crop insurance for buckwheat. That is now beginning. Steve Edwardson, R&D Director for MinnDak Growers Ltd., is working closely with Risk Management Agency in Billings, MT and Kansas City, MO to develop the pilot program. Crop insurance for buckwheat will implemented in selected North Dakota counties in the year 2000. Once the bugs are worked out of the program in year 2000, the coverage will be considered for expansion in other states.

One of the things that members want from the Northeast Buckwheat Growers Association is the chance to share buckwheat growing ideas with other farmers. If an article in this newsletter reminds you of something that you have tried or have seen, please call the editor to help share it with your colleagues (Thomas Björkman at 315-787-2218.) I'm happy to print your questions and comments here.

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