UNH researchers study a prized buckwheat variety, and it’s growing in Maine

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Tartary buckwheat is being studied by researchers at the University of New Hampshire because of its high nutritional value and resistance to disease and drought. Courtesy University of New Hampshire

A prized variety of buckwheat grown in northern Maine and used increasingly in locally made gluten-free food products is the focus of research at the University of New Hampshire for its exceptional nutritional, medicinal, drought-tolerant and disease-resistant qualities.

Crop scientists are studying tartary buckwheat at the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at UNH, where researchers are seeking highly nutritious and resilient crops that can be grown in a wide range of soil types and withstand scorching temperatures, downpours, droughts and pests.

A year into that work, Iago Hale believes tartary buckwheat might be the answer. He’s an associate professor of specialty crop improvement at the university.

“Tartary is an underused and lesser-known crop here that has a lot of wonderful attributes we’re looking for, especially with all the curveballs that climate change is throwing at us,” Hale said.

Hale described tartary buckwheat as “climate ready,” because it tolerates extreme temperatures and moisture. Its blossoms attract pollinators and it grows quickly, maturing within 70 to 90 days, which makes it a flexible and beneficial cover or main crop.

It also thrives in poor soils and naturally suppresses weeds, reducing or eliminating the need for costly or undesirable pesticides and fertilizers. And unlike common buckwheat, which pollinates with other buckwheat plants and changes genetically over time, tartary is self-pollinating.

“So you can count on producing uniform crops year after year,” Hale said.

A SUPERFOOD AMONG US

Buckwheat isn’t a wheat, grass or grain. It’s a plant related to knotweed and rhubarb that produces seeds high in starch that have been used like a grain or cereal for millennia.

Buckwheat was one of the first crops that Europeans introduced to North America. Tartary buckwheat is grown mostly in southern China, the Himalayas and other parts of Asia, where it has been cultivated since the 2nd century B.C. for food and medicine.

Compared to common buckwheat, tartary buckwheat is considered a more resilient crop and a superfood because it contains more proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and flavonoids such as rutin. The latter is an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties that is thought to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, stave off diabetes, arthritis and cancer, and maybe even improve cognition.

Tartary buckwheat is known to be grown commercially by a handful of farms in northern U.S. states, Hale said, including the Finger Lakes region of New York and at Bouchard Family Farms in Fort Kent, at the very top of Aroostook County.

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Joe and Janice Bouchard started growing tartary buckwheat in the early 1980s, when they wanted to diversify their potato-growing operation because that market was flagging at the time. He got the seeds from one of several local farmers who were growing tartary buckwheat, largely for their own use to make ployes, the traditional flatbreads or pancakes that Acadian French families have served with meals for centuries.

“There were no big operations growing it,” Joe Bouchard said. “There was no big market for it.”

Claire Getz, production manager at Maine Crisp, packages outgoing orders last year at the company’s Winslow location. The crackers are made from naturally gluten-free buckwheat grown at Bouchard Family Farms in Aroostook County. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are studying tartary buckwheat, which is grown at the Fort Kent farm, for its nutritional value and ability to withstand climate change. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Sales took off when the Bouchards started making their ployes mix, which includes regular wheat flour. Now, they’re growing 200 acres of tartary buckwheat, which produces 150,000 to 170,000 pounds of flour annually, he said.

In the last few years, as more consumers have sought gluten-free products, demand for their buckwheat flour has surpassed demand for their pancake mix. Buyers include several Maine companies that make gluten-free snacks and other foods, such as Diggables Buckwheat Puffs and the Maine Crisp Co., which recently expanded its product line and now buys 12,000 pounds of flour from the Bouchards each month.

“It’s a new market for us,” Janice Bouchard said. “People are jumping on board with the tartary buckwheat and we’re just hanging on for the ride. Next year we may have to plant more.”

The Bouchards weren’t aware of the UNH study, but they agreed that tartary buckwheat is easy to grow.

“It’s a very easy crop,” Janice Bouchard said. “You don’t need pesticides and it has a very short growing season.”

Hale, the UNH researcher, said he’s looking forward to learning more about Bouchard Family Farms.

For now, Hale and a graduate student are working with a seed collection of 78 tartary buckwheat accessions – genetically distinct variations of the plant that have occurred naturally – maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal agency and the state of New Hampshire fund the UNH farm project.

They started growing tartary buckwheat in a university greenhouse last fall, then planted the seedlings in small plots at the research farm, Hale said. Because tartary matures in just a few months, they were able to plant on multiple dates, allowing them to harvest and compare crop characteristics in late spring, early summer and midsummer.

The initial goal is to identify which tartary seeds produce plants with characteristics that are desirable for buckwheat growers, processors and consumers, he said. Some plants grow taller than others or produce larger seeds. They’ll be reaching out to various stakeholders to find out what they need from an optimal tartary buckwheat.

Then they will determine whether it’s necessary to launch a long-term program of cross-pollination to produce ideal seeds. They won’t be doing any genetic modification, Hale said.

“We already have a lot of variety to choose from,” he said. “One of them may be ideal.”

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