The Beauty of Buckwheat
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word buckwheat? Is it pancakes? Is it coal? Did you think of honey? What about a little boy, or an animal’s name? To help me lead off this story, I asked a number of people that same question. Whereas some responses surprised me, pancakes as the most common reply did not. One person even said whitetails which, well, you’ll see. While pancakes would certainly have been my answer if you had asked me, buckwheat itself stacks up a bunch of worthy reasons why I’m writing about it, and most likely ones you didn’t know about.
Totally unrelated to wheat, nor is it a grain, buckwheat is a non-native annual plant that produces clusters of beechnut-shaped seeds on stems that can range from two to six feet tall. When the seeds are milled, the resulting gluten-free flour is a high quality protein, rich in iron, high in antioxidants, and a source of all nine essential amino acids—the ones our bodies can’t produce. Therefore, buckwheat has been touted as one of the healthiest foods that we are not eating enough of.
You learn a thing or two about a plant when you start growing it, and such was the case when buckwheat became a routine spring planting on our farm. Not as a cash crop for human consumption—like tens of thousands of acres are across the country—but rather a wildlife and habitat enhancement crop primarily for a species much like the name implies—deer! While unheard of twenty years ago in this neck of the woods, the construction of wildlife food plots during the growing season has now developed into a booming industry for seed companies, not to mention a pastime amongst hunters and landowners. And—make no mistake about it—those food plots have been mostly responsible for converting traditional hunting tactics from drives to stands. Hunger drives wildlife, and food plots help lure the wildlife to the proximity of the stands where hunters await.
Because of the abundant acreage of agricultural crops that deer have access to on our farm, it’s simply not necessary for us to plant food plots to sustain them through the summer. So, we focus on plants that will not only be in their prime stage when hunting season arrives, but also maintain adequate feed value through the winter—think brassicas, oats, winter wheat, and rye. Bottom line—if the severity of stress whitetails must endure during those winter months can be minimized, that’s a huge step to growing bigger bucks and healthier deer.
We also plant clovers and other highly attractive species for long-term food and cover. For that ground that would otherwise sit idle until the window of planting in mid or late summer has opened up for brassicas and small grains, that’s where buckwheat’s usefulness as a cover crop—one grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil—comes in. Protection would imply preventing erosion and conserving soil moisture, while enrichment would be the practice of tilling the growing plants back into the soil—a.k.a. green manure.
In terms of a cover crop, I rate buckwheat as a star performer. Its rapid growth in a short period produces a large volume of plant material that decomposes quickly, while significantly boosting the levels of organic matter once it’s turned under. So, once again, for those plots or fields that would otherwise sit idle for a month or so waiting to be planted to the fall crop, we prepare them for that fall crop by growing buckwheat.
The idiom “more than one way to skin a cat” applies to planting buckwheat as well. We’ve practiced three different means, but our favorite method is as follows, and takes place around Memorial Day—or as soon as all danger of frost has passed. First, we work the selected ground into a deep, smooth seedbed using an aggressive disk, but that’s after we have applied the specified fertilizer based on a soil test. Next, using the same three point hitch-mounted fertilizer spreader, we broadcast the buckwheat seed at sixty pounds per acre. Finally, a cultipacker is then used to press the seed into the soil.
One of the most satisfying pleasures associated with sowing seeds is to watch a soaking rain pass through shortly after the work is done. With optimum conditions, buckwheat germinates extremely fast—sometimes a noticeable sprout after just forty-eight hours of very moist soil contact. With germination of that speed, weeds don’t stand a chance getting a foothold. But even if they do, buckwheat’s rapid growth and dense soil shading canopy chokes them out, eliminating the use of herbicides.
Referring to optimum growing conditions again, we’ve seen waist-high buckwheat begin flowering in just over a month. And what a spectacle it is when it has reached maturity. The profusion of snow-white blossoms in contrast with the greenness of summer creates a beautiful, picturesque scene. And what a marvel of nature it is to walk beside a field in full bloom, and witness countless honeybees collecting nectar at a feverish pace.
When buckwheat has reached this stage of growth, we till it under with our disk. That green manure significantly raises the nutrient content of the soil, especially in the form of phosphorous that the follow-up crop will utilize. Keep in mind buckwheat will reseed if it’s not terminated within ten days of flowering. If time allows before the planting date of the follow-up crop, another stand can be successfully grown by simply tilling in the fully mature plants. In the meantime, a variety of wildlife can enjoy those seeds too. To prevent casualties to the honeybee population, our tillage only occurs during the coolest period of the day when the bees have returned to their hives.
Last I checked, buckwheat seed was priced at eighty cents a pound. Though it slightly lacks the attractiveness and protein content of some food plot species, it's also something to consider as a forage crop for deer, or a quick replacement in a plot where a different plant failed. I once broadcast the seed by hand on top of some worked up ground just prior to a downpour, and witnessed some impressive results weeks later.
When my brother Ronnie and I started growing buckwheat on our farm, every year, upon seeing those blooming fields, Dad would reminiscence of those days decades ago when he and many other farmers in our area grew it. In those days, the harvest season was a special tradition. It united neighbors for a common purpose—reaping small grains, including buckwheat. Traveling from farm to farm with a thresher, Dad recalled the memories of working alongside others gathering the harvest, while tending the machine with bundle after bundle to separate the grain or kernels from the straw.
Working alongside Dad, my brother and I used to feed the thresher too, but not with buckwheat. Sadly, by that time, despite its nutritional value to humans, buckwheat had lost its popularity in the midst of "progress." Wikipedia explains why: "The cultivation of buckwheat declined sharply in the twentieth century with the adoption of nitrogen fertilizer that increased the productivity of other staples. Over one million acres of buckwheat were harvested in the U.S. in 1918, and by 1964, the last year that annual production statistics were gathered by the USDA, only fifty thousand acres were grown.”
In my opinion, buckwheat is surprisingly underrated. In a nutshell, here's what it can provide: an energizing, gluten-free baking flour, a source of nectar for honey production, erosion control, a soil amender, a smother crop, and a wildlife and livestock food source.
Just like Dad, the word buckwheat to folks of that generation would probably bring to mind the "good old days." But since my connection with growing buckwheat has taken place within the last few years, the good old days of growing it are right now!