Recently, I received a letter from Jim Spencer, who resides on Horse Thief Road, west of Wellsboro. Jim wrote that he enjoyed my recent article on honey and cinnamon; also, if ever in his neighborhood, I should stop to see the multitude of honeybees that visit the field of buckwheat that he had planted.
With the idea that buckwheat would be an interesting column, I asked my wife Mary Alice if she would like to have lunch at the Native Bagel and do some antiquing in Wellsboro. She said "yes," and we called our friends, Jack and Jean Huffman, of Canton, to go along.
Jim, who retired from the state Department of Transportation, now lives on the farm he inherited from his grandfather. Although he never was a farmer, Jim decided to plant a field of buckwheat.
He remembered the old-time farmers saying that if you planted buckwheat too early or too late, the plant will blast, meaning it will be hit either by an early or late frost. Jim also heard that buckwheat should be planted at the same time blackberries are in bloom, which is around July 4, and this is the advice he followed.
Jim told us buckwheat usually is planted in early summer, only after the ground is thoroughly warm, and the seed should be planted 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep. A chain that was dragged behind the antique grain drill, which sat in the middle of Jim's buckwheat field, covered the seeds with dirt.
The plants began blooming about 40 days after seeding and matured about 35 days later. Harvesting would be done when a substantial part of the seed is ripe; however, Jim's intent is to leave the buckwheat for the wildlife.
On the day we stopped, Jim met us with a mug of cinnamon and honey tea and led us to his buckwheat field, which was in full bloom. Hundreds of honeybees were gathering pollen from the flowers.
The buckwheat plant has a strong odor, which is the reason that buckwheat honey is dark in color.
Jack Huffman told me that back when he was a young lad, most farmers raised a field of buckwheat. In the northeastern U.S., buckwheat was a common crop in the 18th and 19th centuries; however, cultivation declined sharply in the 20th century due to the use of nitrogen fertilizer, which corn and wheat respond to strongly.
More than a million acres of buckwheat were harvested in the U.S. in 1918; by 1954, the acreage declined to 150,000 and, by 1964, which was the last year production statistics were gathered, only 50,000 acres were grown.
The name of buckwheat (also known as beech wheat) comes from its triangular seeds, which resemble the much larger seeds of the beech nut and the fact that its usage is similar to wheat. The word "buckwheat" comes from the modern Dutch word "beuk," meaning "beech" and "weite," meaning "wheat."
In or near 6,000 BC, common buckwheat was domesticated and first cultivated in Southeast Asia, then spread to the Middle East and Europe. Buckwheat was one of the earliest crops introduced by Europeans to North America.
Buckwheat is a short season crop that does well on either low-fertility or acidic soils; however, the soil must be well drained. Too much fertilizer, especially nitrogen, will reduce yields.
In hot climates, the crop only can be grown by sowing late in the season, allowing it to bloom in cooler weather. The presence of honeybees greatly increases the yield.
Today, many farmers plant buckwheat to use as a green manure, plowing it under after the flowers bloom. It is used to suppress weeds, protect the soil from erosion, attract beneficial insects and build soil organic matter.
The best time to plow buckwheat under is 10 days after flowering begins.
Buckwheat suffers relatively little from either diseases or insects. Because the crop is fast-growing, it generally outgrows most weeds that can emerge after planting. Perhaps the crop's No. 1 problem is wildlife, which feed upon the buckwheat before it can be harvested.
At one time, buckwheat was used for animal and human consumption, with most of the buckwheat sent to a mill where it was ground into flour. A favorite breakfast, for many hardworking farmers and lumberjacks, was a tall stack of buckwheat flapjacks.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.