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Buckwheat outlook mixed for 2009

Buckwheat, one of the oldest niche market crops on the Prairies, could vanish in 2009 unless growers somewhere take a fresh interest.Traditionally, most Prairie buckwheat is grown in Manitoba. It peaked at 140,000 acres in the 1970s, dropped to around 40,000 acres a decade ago, and has continued to slide. The 2008 Manitoba buckwheat crop was seeded by an estimated 30 growers. Only 3500 acres were covered by crop insurance.


December 3, 2008
By John Dietz

Topics

Outlook for crop is mixed but contracts will be available.
   
Buckwheat, one of the oldest niche market crops on the Prairies, could vanish in 2009 unless growers somewhere take a fresh interest.

Traditionally, most Prairie buckwheat is grown in Manitoba. It peaked at 140,000 acres in the 1970s, dropped to around 40,000 acres a decade ago, and has continued to slide. The 2008 Manitoba buckwheat crop was seeded by an estimated 30 growers. Only 3500 acres were covered by crop insurance.

buckwheat
West-Can Agra marketing manager Mike Durand expects to see buckwheat acres increase in 2009. 

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It is not, however, all doom and gloom. Two companies plan to offer buckwheat contracts in 2009. One is offering contracts anywhere on the Prairies. Plus, there is a choice of varieties, and updated research work is done each year by the Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization (WADO).

New contracts

Western Canada’s largest grain company, Viterra, had the lion’s share of a declining buckwheat business. Unfortunately for farmers, it dropped the commodity in 2007.

In 2008, West-Can Agra Inc., Plum Coulee, Man., saw an increase in buckwheat business, says marketing manager Mike Durand. He has been buying buckwheat for a decade, has a loyal following of growers, and is hopeful that 2009 will see a turn-around. “I suspect we’ll be the biggest buckwheat merchant now that Viterra is no longer interested.” he says. West-Can was set up in 2006 as a merchant for soybeans, sunflowers and buckwheat.


Springfield Mills Inc.(SMI), Oak Bank, Man., holds the registration for AC Springfield, one of seven buckwheat varieties. SMI contracts in Manitoba and Saskatchewan for 2008 are “far short” of the number of acres the company wanted, says Lorne Kyle, president. However, he expects a much better year in 2009. SMI is working to gain contract growers in all four western provinces.

His optimism comes from a new contractual sales agreement with the Japanese. The agreement was inked too late for the crop year that was already underway. “The Japanese came to an agreement on price and on rules that we can live with. This will help a great deal,” he says. “The SMI contract is for total production of whatever amount is grown. The Japanese accept the product in the rail car, after it has been processed. This will relieve us from the inboard and ocean freight. We don’t have to ship it to Tokyo anymore.”

Durand says the buckwheat business, potentially, is quite attractive for 2009. “My understanding is Japan is going to be very aggressive. They’re going to come up short this year, from what I’m hearing, so the buckwheat business is potentially quite attractive,”Durand says. “They usually contract the first ten bushels an acre. Most of the time there’s more. It goes to Japan, eastern Canada and even Europe. There’s always a market.”

He hopes to offer new contracts in January 2009.

Hanging on
Buckwheat is “hanging on by its teeth, but it’s a strong grip,” says Rejéan Picard, Farm Production Advisor, Pembina GO Team with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) at Somerset.

The Manitoba Buckwheat Growers Association (MBGA) was formed in 1995. In 2001, to support the industry, it was authorized to collect 0.75 percent of the value of each bushel sold and offered automatic membership to each grower. Membership has fallen from about 250 growers at the outset. Picard says the 2007 crop was reduced to 8000 acres produced by 65 or 70 growers. He estimates the 2008 membership will be about half of last year. “Production jumped in 2006 to 16,691 acres because, for other crops, input costs were high and commodity prices were low. Since then, other commodity values have gone up substantially. Buckwheat hasn’t gone up as much, and there’s a higher level of risk,” Picard says.

Selling the niche crop also was a problem at times. It fell off the radar as major grain companies consolidated; the small merchants struggled to sell into distant markets like Japan. The association continues to make efforts to open a North American market for buckwheat, but has limited success, says Picard.

  Nutrient appeal
Buckwheat has deep roots in the Prairies. It
was a traditional food, brought by settlers, and still is used in
cultural dishes. It has uses in pasta, pancakes, porridge, noodles and
soups, as roasted seed and as fresh greens. Buckwheat contains no
gluten, so it is eaten in various forms by people with celiac disease
or gluten intolerance. Its protein is the most absorbable in the plant
kingdom, making it an excellent meat substitute. It also is high in
carbohydrates and antioxidants.
Components include: A chemical that strengthens capillaries and
increases circulation; a component showing promise in treating Type 2
diabetes and a protein that may reduce cholesterol.

Production issues
Buckwheat can be a good fit in the crop rotation. It does best in well-drained, light or sandy soil with moderate fertility. It can survive dry conditions better than most, but is sensitive to saturated conditions.

Both Kyle and Durand say committed buckwheat growers do well with the crop. They select a clean field in the fall for the next buckwheat, get it ready, and may add a little fertilizer. If the weather isn’t a problem, they can expect a 30-bushel crop. The provincial average, 20 bushels, reflects large numbers
of last-minute decisions and disappointing results.

Buckwheat needs to be seeded late enough to avoid any risk of spring frost. It can be direct seeded. It also needs phosphate, but high nitrogen fertility can prolong flowering, leading to vegetative growth, heavy lodging and reduced seed production.

Buckwheat is a formidable competitor to late-emerging weeds, but can fall behind if it faces cool growing conditions with a significant early weed infestation. Only one weed control product, Poast, is registered for buckwheat.

Most growers swath the crop, but straight-cutting shortly after desiccation has been effective in demonstration plots. Crop insurance is available, but coverage value and cost have been issues for some growers.

WADO trials
The Manitoba Crop Variety Evaluation Trials committee and WADO have kept the latest buckwheat varieties in research plots for the past three years at Melita. In 2007 four new buckwheat varieties, including Koto, Koban, Koma and a numbered line all yielded about 40 percent higher than the old Mancan check variety. These new varieties yielded in the 1400 lbs. (30 bushels) per acre range. “We’ve had very good results. The yield is as good as flax, most years, with very little input cost,” says Scott Day, WADO co-ordinator and Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) agronomist/diversification specialist. “Twenty-five bushels is what to expect. It stands very well. We’ve straight-combined our buckwheat each year. Most people swath it, but we’ve desiccated it with Reglone, then have been able to straight combine in a couple of days, with very few losses.”

Other than a late spring or early fall frosts, the big production risk is a dry fall. When other crops dry off, buckwheat needs a good moisture supply as it keeps growing until frost shuts it down.

Buckwheat attracts wildlife, but “seems to handle grasshoppers not too bad,” he says. “It’s hard to do plot work with buckwheat without having some wildlife influence. The deer, as well as rabbits, love the plots.”

It seems to be a pretty reliable crop in southwest Manitoba, according to Day, and relatively inexpensive to grow. Unlike soybeans at present, buckwheat is a crop that can be insured in Southwest Manitoba. Price is the other big risk. A good crop of buckwheat, Day says, “just hasn’t been paying the same” as canola or flax, which are easier to keep clean and less exposed to weather risk. “It’s been close to extinction a few times in Manitoba, but if we have a very late seeding season, buckwheat probably will suddenly be popular again.”