Buckwheat is a tiny but mighty staple crop emerging in the Pacific Northwest food and farming scene with potential to diversify our diets, reinvigorate traditional cultural food pathways, and bolster environmental benefits on our agricultural landscape. While buckwheat food markets are less well established in US diets than in other regions of the world, it is an important food crop and key ingredient in many traditional cuisines revered by a diversity of cultures across the globe. To uplift the potential of buckwheat in the Pacific Northwest, more than 40 farmers, chefs, researchers, and local food champions recently came together on a late summer afternoon in August to exchange knowledge and savor the rich flavors at the first NW Buckwheat Festival co-hosted by OSA and WSU at the OSA WA research farm in Chimacum.
What’s so great about buckwheat? From an environmental perspective this insect pollinated crop attracts and feeds a diversity of beneficial insects including parasitic wasps, hoverflies, and other pollen and nectar eating insect predators, as well as honeybees. As a summer cover crop the fast-growth and branching habit of buckwheat smothers weeds and builds soil organic matter. From a societal perspective it holds potential as a highly nutritious storage crop, diversifying our locally-grown diet, and bolstering regional food security. For chefs and eaters, the nutty, earthy flavor is an unreplaceable ingredient in Japanese soba noodles, French crepes, and a plethora of traditional dishes from Soviet Russia, Eastern Europe and countries across the far east.
Many Western Washington farmers know and grow buckwheat as a cover crop and Central Washington farmers lead exports to Japan, but unfortunately, few sell the seed for local consumption – yet. A growing network of researchers are working in the fields, laboratories, and kitchens across Western WA so we all can eat more buckwheat in the future! Part of the equation is production, but the other half is lack of diversity in availability of seed of traditional or improved varieties. Food processors are also figuring out how to handle the crop for small scale production and varied culinary uses. Plant breeders at the WSU Sustainable Seed Systems lab are leading the New Grains Northwest project to evaluate and select varieties on farms across the region, including the OSA WA research farm, while building regional markets for buckwheat. With an aim toward the next generation, project partners at the WSDA Farm to School Program are working to build supply chain connections, and get nutritious buckwheat recipes and products on school menus. To this end they surveyed regional school lunch programs to better understand what buckwheat products fit particularly well in school meal programs and as a result will soon be serving buckwheat pancakes and nutrition bars to students this fall. Research collaborators of a related WSU-led program, the Soil to Society project, are also expanding our knowledge of the soil improvement and nutritional qualities of buckwheat. Beyond the research realm, an enthusiastic network of chefs, bakers, eaters, and local food promoters are expanding our knowledge of how to work with buckwheat in the kitchen building regional demand to support farmers’ economic ability to expand production and support processing for culinary markets.
Enthusiasm at the August buckwheat festival was palpable for this “pseudo-cereal” (really a seed, not a cereal grain). Festival participants learned growing techniques in the field from farmers Keith Kisler of the Chimacum Valley Grainery and Nash Huber of Nash’s Organic Produce. These seasoned buckwheat growers, who currently sell locally grown buckwheat flour, shared tips and tricks to harvesting, cleaning and processing and confirmed through first-hand experience that it is well adapted to our Western Washington climate. To learn more about buckwheat production watch for a new WSU Extension bulletin set for release from WSU Seed Systems Lab soon (fall 2023) providing growers with guidance on buckwheat production, harvesting and processing techniques. Millers, bakers and researchers present at the festival discussed pros and cons of milling and de-hulling techniques and the need for specialized equipment to process buckwheat for varied culinary uses. Event participant, chef Bonnie Morales of Kachka restaurant in Portland, shared her struggles to source buckwheat with the culinary qualities she desires for use in the traditional dishes of her childhood in Russia and Eastern Europe. The dishes she creates in her restaurant feature a high-quality buckwheat groat (de-hulled seed) that is toasted to bring out the nutty flavor. Learning (or re-learning) how to bake with this dense, gluten-free, grain may also take some experimentation, as shared by chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurant in NY, who described how his head baker experimented with a triple-fermentation process to bake a loaf of buckwheat sourdough.
As the sun set on the festival field walk and appetites grew, the aroma and flavors of chef-inspired buckwheat dishes satiated participants’ palates in a networking and tasting session. Chef Brian Stafford of Little Spruce Creperie served up an array of traditional French crepes featuring local sweet and savory flavors including fresh picked chard, goat cheese, and blackberry reduction (melded with an array of other fresh ingredients). Bellies filled and smiles grew from samples of farm to school buckwheat pancakes. Mouths watered and second helpings were served of traditional Russian buckwheat cabbage roles from chef Bonnie Morales of Kachka. You too can recreate this hardy dish as my family did the following week with a recipe from the Kachka cookbook, available for purchase online. While enjoying the spread participants wet their whistles on a delicious gluten-free buckwheat beer provided by Ghostfish Brewery and finished off their meal with buckwheat chocolate chip and black sesame cookies prepared by the Chimacum Valley Grainery bakers.
Conversations lingered into the evening with happy stomachs and full minds while participants forged new relationships and renewed their commitments to grow (and eat) more buckwheat next year. We hope to see you at a buckwheat gathering soon.
Learn more about NW grown buckwheat efforts and stay in touch by following updates from project partners at the Sustainable Seed Systems Lab, Soil to Society project, and WA Farm to School program.