GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Minn-Dak Growers Ltd. — the region’s premier processors of buckwheat and mustard — has some good news for growers of both crops.
First, company vice president and co-owner Jeremy Peterson said new counties have been added in 2021 for standard crop insurance for buckwheat production in North Dakota and Montana. That could still help producers with a late-season, drought-tolerant alternative crop into late June.
A family heritage
Buckwheat is not related to wheat. The plants, in fact, are related to rhubarb. They produce seeds, or “groats.” The groats are milled into a flour. Peterson said some consumers needlessly worry buckwheat might contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Buckwheat is often blended with wheat flour or used to make gluten-free products — things like biscuits, doughnuts and granola bars.
Minn-Dak Growers is the No. 1 buckwheat processor in the U.S. The Peterson family has personified and grown the business in the region.
The largest world producers are China, Russia and Europe. The Minn-Dak buckwheat mill is the largest of its kind in the U.S., with the only competition being about half as large.
Jeremy Peterson is 43. His father, Harold, 74, is president of Minn-Dak Growers. Jeremy’s grandfather, Harris Peterson, who died in 2018 at age 92, started the company with peas and flax in 1966, operating from a Minnesota farm just east of Drayton, N.D., where they still farm.
Harris moved into mustard and buckwheat in the early 1970s, and was noted for developing markets in Japan. He built the Grand Forks buckwheat mill in 1977, and expanded in the 1990s, moving more into U.S. markets for flours and groats and in 1985 built a mustard mill and in 1995 built a buckwheat mill. In 1986, the company added a large processing plant at Dickinson, N.D., with about 8 million pounds of storage.
Minn-Dak Growers contracts farmers to grow both crops. The crops are largely grown in western North Dakota and Montana, with some in South Dakota. Canada supplies much of its mustard.
Minn-Dak Growers annually handles about 10 million pounds of mustard and 15 million pounds of buckwheat. About 7 million pounds of the buckwheat are exported to Japan and about 8 million pounds are brought to Grand Forks for processing that goes mostly for domestic consumption. Minn-Dak makes four flour types — Fancy, Supreme, HP Supreme and HP Premier, with different baking qualities.
The company usually sells 6 million to 8 million pounds of buckwheat every year, but there have been opportunities to sell even more if they could source it from farmers.
“We just need some assistance with the USDA, help us to try and get more area the farmers could insure it,” Peterson said.
The Risk Management Agency on March 21, 2021, announced new counties for various crops, including for buckwheat: Golden Valley, Mercer, Morton and Oliver counties in North Dakota, and Dawson, Fallon and Wibaux counties in Montana.
“Coming into a year like this — cool, no rain — some of these farmers might want to be looking at buckwheat,” Peterson said.
About 10 potential growers in the new crop insurance counties have shown interest so far, especially in Montana. “The market is excellent for buckwheat right now,” he said.
One farmer with plenty of experience in growing buckwheat in a county that formerly did not have crop insurance coverage for buckwheat is Marvin Hatzenbuhler of Mandan, N.D. He's grown buckwheat for about four years on his own farm, but he's grown it for about 25 years at the Area 4 Research Farm, which he runs at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory south of Mandan.
"Buckwheat has treated us pretty well out here, probably had one bad year out of 25 years," he said.
Part of what makes it a good option for farms in the Northern Plains is the later planting window.
"You don’t plant it until end of May or the first part of June, so like this year it kind of fits in. Moisture is a little short and it gives you a window of opportunity; if it does rain you can still put it in where the other crops, you’re probably getting too late to plant," he said.
Not having crop insurance was a likely reason for not many farmers considering growing buckwheat in Morton County, Hatzenbuhler said.
"Before the insurance, I guess we were just taking a risk," he said. "We were planting on a kind of a small scale that you feel comfortable with."
Buckwheat has to be windrowed or swathed, which may be another reason some farmers have not considered it to be a viable addition to their rotation. But Hatzenbuhler said it has other benefits. He also grows wheat, oats, corn and alfalfa, and the buckwheat has been a good addition because it makes the soil more malleable and has a different mode of action for spray. Plus, the input costs are low. Seed, purchased through Minn-Dak Growers, is about $20 an acre.
"You can get by with less fertilizer and nutrients on buckwheat," he said.
The crop insurance rates he's seen appear to be "not too bad," around $7 to $12 per acre.
The deadline for planting buckwheat for full crop insurance is June 15, Peterson said.
“It still can give you options after (that). You just lose coverage (percentage),” he said. Some farmers planted as late as July 1 in previous years and have had excellent crops, he said.
Buckwheat will produce a good yield with only 8 inches of season-long moisture, if it’s timely.
"It likes it later, and then it gets cooler, and you might catch the late rains in the fall, when it’s at seed-set,” he said.
The crop yields 1,200 pounds to 1,800 pounds per acre.
“Right now, we’re sitting with a 25-cent (per pound) contract, which is very good — competitive to wheat, but with low inputs,” he said. Inputs for buckwheat are $40 to $60 an acre for fertilizer and seed.
Prior to the crop insurance territory announcement in March, farmers in non-approved counties technically could insure their buckwheat, but only if their insurance agent in an adjacent county provided for a “hand-written” agreement.
“The farmer usually would not have any coverage, or any ‘proven yield,’ for coverage,” Peterson said.
Minn-Dak would like to see the map grow for crop insurance for buckwheat.
“We’d like to have more coverage in Minnesota as well,” he said. “We’ve seen big interest in the Alexandria area, southern Minnesota — even into Iowa.”
Keeping it ‘No. 1’
Minn-Dak Growers is also striving on the mustard side of the business. It is in the top three of a handful of mustard flour millers in the U.S. and Canada and is the only one in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana. Canada is the largest growing area, although acreage is expected to be down in 2021 because of competition from canola. Mustard prices this year are up 20% to 30% from last year. The main competition is a large Canadian company that deals primarily in “whole seed” and flour sales.
Total North American acreage varies significantly year-to-year, from 60,000 to 350,000 acres. Planting typically coincides with spring wheat. Minn-Dak typically contracts about 18,000 acres of “yellow mustard” in a year, and another 5,000 acres of “Oriental mustard,” which is darker yellow and used primarily for hotter-spiced wasabi sauce.
About 60% of their mustard market is international. Much of that is to Asia and Europe. The bulk is into ground powder or fine mustard flours.
In the past two years, Minn-Dak Growers has faced a technical challenge with its mustard, to counter quality concerns due to excessively wet or dry conditions.
The $150,000 color sorter handles 3,000 pounds to 3,500 pounds of seed per hour.
“That keeps up with our mill,” he said. “We can now take lower-grade raw mustard now, and turn it into No. 1 with color sorting.”
Crop insurance expansion
Besides the expansion of counties in which buckwheat can be grown, the USDA also expanded crop insurance programs for other crops in the region.
Dry beans in Clearwater and Goodhue counties.
Dry peas in Blue Earth, Clearwater, Faribault and Norman counties.
Processing beans in Houston County.
Dry beans in Adams, Portage and Waupaca counties.
Soybeans in Richland County.
(Jenny Schlecht contributed to this report.)