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Tom Bilek helped launch the Buckwheat Growers Association of Minnesota.

Buckwheat: Old crop finds new life

WADENA, Minn. —  Business was slow when Tom Bilek helped launch the Buckwheat Growers Association of Minnesota nearly two decades ago. He says, not altogether in jest, “we were like the Maytag repairman,” the lonely fictional pitchman.  

But times are changing for buckwheat, a once-common crop that had fallen into obscurity. It’s new wave of popularity includes everything from pillows to pet food, and its nutritional benefits, which could include helping manage diabetes, are boosting sales for human consumption, too.

“I really think it’s an up and coming crop with a bright future,” says Bilek, who grows the crop on his family’s organic farm in Aldrich, Minn.

Sales at the cooperative’s plant in Wadena — limited in its early years — are booming today, with demand for buckwheat seed especially strong.

Nobody thinks buckwheat will ever become a major player in Upper Midwest agriculture. It doesn’t yield as well as most competing crops, especially on good soil, which will discourage many, if not most, farmers from growing it. Also, its hulls need to be removed before it can be used for human consumption, a process known as dehulling. And like other small-market or “niche” crops, farmers should line up advance contracts to sell it before they plant it.

But Bilek — who once mortgaged his farm machinery to raise money to buy buckwheat cleaning equipment — is confident the crop will play a bigger role in area ag, especially in organic operations. The crop’s attractions include:

  • Low input costs.

  • The ability to grow, and even thrive, on poor soil.

  • Fast-maturing — only 10 to 12 weeks are needed from planting to maturity, which is especially valuable when poor planting conditions require a short-season crop.

  • Useful as a cover crop.

  • A favorite food source of bees — which could take on greater importance, given growing concern about declining bee numbers.

“Bees love it,” Bilek says.

Past and present

Buckwheat is thought to have originated thousands of years ago in China. It was brought to Europe in the 15th century and to the U.S. in the 17th century.

More than 1 million acres of buckwheat were grown annually in the U.S. during the second half of the 19th century, primarily to make flour and for livestock feed. But the crop lost popularity because of new, better-yielding varieties of wheat and other competing crops.

Only 34,000 acres of buckwheat were harvested nationwide in 2012, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers available.

But by all accounts, U.S. buckwheat acreage, which stood at 25,000 in 2007, is rising, both in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere.

Give part of the credit to growing demand for buckwheat pillows. Pillows made from buckwheat hulls are said to have less risk of exposure to allergens than ones containing down or synthetic fibers. It’s also said that buckwheat-hull pillows conduct and reflect less heat than those filled with synthetic materials.

Hulls from buckwheat cleaned in Wadena are used by a pillow factory on the West Coast, says James Crook, who manages the Wadena plant.

Buckwheat groats — the seeds inside the hulls — also make a high-quality dog food that’s in growing demand, Bilek and others say.

And buckwheat holds appeal for human consumption. Among other things, buckwheat is high in a number of important nutrients and is free of gluten.

“It’s really a nutritious, healthy food,” with a nutty taste when roasted, Bilek says.

 Canadian connection

Buckwheat has a long history in Canada, too.

Canadian farmers planted as many as 150,000 acres of buckwheat in the late 1970s, but the number has declined to 30,000 to 40,000 acres now, according to information from the Canadian government.

Canadian farmers are showing renewed interest in buckwheat, however, in part because it costs less to raise than canola and some other competing crops. The rising interest could lead to construction of a $15 million buckwheat processing plant near Garland, Manitoba, according to published reports.

But those reports are premature, says Don Fyk, a Garland buckwheat farmer and president of Fyk Soba Inc., which is involved in the project.

An ongoing feasibility study, the results of which might not be known until the end of the year, will help determine if such a plant is built, he says.

Fyk Soba specializes in producing buckwheat to create Japanese Soba noodles.

 Expanding its mission

Bilek, who retired in 1991 after a long career as a St. Paul firefighter, operates the farm the family of his wife, DeEtta, purchased in 1944.  

In 1997, he and four other Wadena-area buckwheat farmers established the Buckwheat Growers of Minnesota Association to grow and market the crop. They mortgaged their farm machinery to raise money to buy equipment to clean their buckwheat, which they were able to sell for seed, adding value.

The cleaning took place on Bilek’s farm.

In 2000, the association bought a feed mill in Wadena that was built around 1880.

“She’s an oldie,” Crook says of the facility.

Over time, the association — which now has about three dozen members in several states — has become involved with other grains, including oats, flax and rye. It also has expanded its services, now offering feed for livestock, seed and supplies, grain cleaning, corn drying and grain storage, in both organic-certified and “traditional” (nonGMO).

The nonGMO segment of the business, which now has nine employees, is growing rapidly, Crook says.

“We’ve kept the (Buckwheat Growers) name, and buckwheat is still important to us. But we’re a lot more than buckwheat,” says Crook, who took over for Bilek as plant manager earlier this year.

Bilek, 75, had managed the plant in addition to operating the family farm. He says it was time for him to concentrate on the latter.

He smiles when asked if buckwheat’s resurgent popularity vindicates his long support of the crop.

“It’s a good crop,” he says. “I just hope people take a look at it.”