Harvested buckwheat ready for milling into buckwheat flour.
Cool-climate grain growers in southern Victoria may soon be adding buckwheat to their increasingly diverse cropping programs following successful trials and strong interest from the Japanese market
Buckwheat by name
Despite its name, buckwheat is not a cereal but a fruit seed related to rhubarb and sorrel. It is growing in popularity as a health food for people sensitive to wheat or other grains containing protein glutens. Buckwheat’s grain-like seeds are rich in complex carbohydrates. Russia and China are the largest producers. In 2016 buyers in the US were paying up to US$605 (A$791) per tonne for conventional and US$695/t (A$909) for certified-organic buckwheat.
Buckwheat could become a high-rainfall crop option in southern Australia following interest in new sourcing opportunities by Japanese markets.
Early interest is in the Gippsland region of Victoria because the crop performs well in highland or coastal areas with a distinct contrast between day and night temperatures, and where successive hot days are uncommon.
In late 2015, Southern Farming Systems (SFS) was contacted by a commercial gluten-free-foods manufacturer to facilitate trial sowing by growers.
“We had 2.5 tonnes of seed available for trials, ideally to be grown on the back of fallow, pasture or canola crops, to reduce the incidence of volunteer cereals,” Janice Dowe, SFS Gippsland branch coordinator, says.
Ms Dowe says the first trial sowing indicates buckwheat could be a promising addition to cereal, pulse and pasture rotations – following faba beans, canola or pasture, and harvested in time for following crops to be sown on about 25 April.
“We believe it would be a good crop to have in the toolbox to fit within a break crop rotation, particularly if the window between crops is shorter than usual. For example, sow November, harvest March and follow with a winter cereal. It can also help dry the soil moisture profile, if necessary.”
Ms Dowe says the trial crops indicated soil-moisture content in the seed is an issue but desiccation can mitigate this.
One of the trial sites was at Millring Pastoral, where Rowan Paulet direct-drilled an 18-hectare irrigated crop on a block at Traralgon.
He sowed it in the first week of January, at a rate of 50 kilograms per hectare with 80kg monoammonium phosphate (MAP), into Italian ryegrass pasture, previously cut as silage, and sprayed Roundup® pre-sowing.
“We planted it into a pasture paddock as we needed to guarantee no prior cereal crop because the buckwheat was for a gluten-free cereal processor,” Rowan says.
Irrigation was weekly from January to April, but varied depending on summer rainfall and temperature. Windrowing was done during the week of 23 March. The crop was harvested on 22 April.
“We followed harvest with 100 cows grazing on stubbles for a week, then sprayed and direct-drilled with Italian ryegrass,” Rowan says.
He sees it working well as part of a year-round crop rotation.
The latest trials follow initial research in the early 2000s by agronomist Chris Bluett, which languished after the millennium drought.
Mr Bluett says it is exciting that the crop is back on the agenda, with growers in Gippsland and Geelong keen to add it to their programs.
He says buckwheat grown in this region has strong buyer interest from Japan because Japanese quality requirements demand a very specific environment as moisture content and kernel colour are crucial.
He says south-eastern and southern Victoria look to be among the best places in the world to grow the crop.
Buckwheat is a triangular-shaped seed with a brown to black seed coat that comes away to reveal a similar-shaped starchy kernel. At optimum moisture content, kernels are a pale translucent-green colour.
Mr Bluett says that it is easy to sight-check moisture levels: as buckwheat seed matures, the moisture content drops and the kernel colour changes from green through pale orange to a deep, rusty red.
He believes its best use in southern-Australian cropping systems is as a break crop or as a cover crop as part of mixed grazing/cropping/livestock rotations because it tolerates a wide range of soil types, fertility and pH levels.
Buckwheat will tolerate more soil acidity than most crops. US experience shows it will produce reasonably well at a pH of 5.4 to 6 if adequate phosphorus is provided.
“But it doesn’t like hot weather, which rules out traditional cereal-growing areas,” he says.
Mr Bluett says phosphorus applied at sowing is recommended, but nitrogen is rarely needed, unless soil fertility is particularly low.
Overseas markets have traditionally not favoured buckwheat growing in Australia because of the crop’s ready availability in Asia, but Mr Bluett says perceptions are changing, with Australian production seen as healthier and of higher quality.
“We can grow a better product here but it would also need to be marketed as such.”
SFS is trialling crops in the Ballarat district this summer.
Chris Bluett, HRZ Consulting,
0409 336 113,
Janice Dowe, SFS Gippsland,
0488 600 209,
0427 924 435,
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