Like many farms in Ohio, the 2016 planting season started a little later than expected for Marion County’s Lill Farms. Planters started rolling on May 23 and wrapped up in the first part of June. Summer dealt a rough five-week period with no rain and then timely August rains helped push yield numbers to higher marks than anticipated.
As harvest time approached, Lill Farms’ David Niederhuber had to take a hiatus from the corn and soybean fields to take off another crop that is part of the farm’s rotation — buckwheat.
“We started growing buckwheat here in the early 1990s and it certainly is a unique crop,” Niederhuber said. “It’s a double-crop with a short growing season and it goes in after wheat and this year we planted it on July 15 but it can go in as late as Aug. 1.”
With a mid-summer planting time frame and a short growing season window, the weather experienced this year was ideal for the unique crop.
“We received about two inches of rain about a week after we planted it,” Niederhuber said. “That was helpful, but buckwheat doesn’t need a lot of rain and it doesn’t require the best soils and it is most beneficial in how it pulls fertilizer back out of the soil and will make it readily available for next year’s corn crop.”
Because it grows so quickly and helps to keep the weeds down, buckwheat works really well as a cover crop, not to mention the added production revenue per acre.
“That is always a factor we consider when we decide to plant buckwheat,” Niederhuber said. “The last time we put wheat out we followed it with tillage radishes and crimson clover, but buckwheat looked good on paper this year.”
In a normal growing season, buckwheat requires a frost in order to be harvested, but the extended warm temperatures of 2016 forced Lill Farms to take a different approach.
“Buckwheat is an indeterminate crop, which means it will keep flower and producing seed until it is dead,” Niederhuber said. “Normally we go in and cut it three days after the first frost, but this year that wasn’t an option. It did look pretty green coming out the back, but all and all we didn’t have too many issues with cutting it before a frost.”
Choosing to plant buckwheat in Ohio does have other challenges. The dealer that Lill Farms used to work with was in Forrest, Ohio, but there are currently no buckwheat dealers in the state, leaving the only option to deal directly with a mill in New York.
“I make the trip up to pick up the seed and I’ll take the harvested product back to that mill this fall,” Niederhuber said. “They will process it to make buckwheat flour which is then used for pancakes.”
Buckwheat is considered highly nutritious and the market for the grain is growing, especially with an increasing number of people adopting a gluten-free diet. Buckwheat is not a member of the wheat family and is more closely related to rhubarb.
This rare crop is marketed much differently than corn and soybeans, which base their values from the Chicago Board of Trade.
“Buckwheat is a 100% production direct contract,” Niederhuber said. “The mill sets the price for the seed and sets the price for what they’ll pay when you deliver the harvest back to them and it’s all on the hundredweight.”
Trucking the new crop back to New York is the biggest expense in Lill Farm’s buckwheat endeavor.
“That may be one of the biggest hurdles for other farmers playing with the idea of making buckwheat a part of their operation,” Niederhuber said. “Logistically and economically, not many farmers are going to be willing to make that trip when harvest is complete.”
That’s why the decision to plant double-crop buckwheat on these Central Ohio wheat acres is made on a year-to-year basis.
“Straw has chemicals in it that are toxic to the buckwheat, so we chose to bale 3,500 bales of straw this year as opposed to disking it in,” Niederhuber said. “Combine the value of that straw with the value of the buckwheat and the end result to the bottom line would equal close to 200 bushel corn with a quarter to half of the expense.”
With two plantings, two harvests and straw handling, Niederhuber and Lill Farms are willing to do the more difficult tasks in order to make things work in this current agricultural economy. In 2017, an additional 10 acres of buckwheat will be planted for a total of 60 acres, meaning a few more pancakes for the rest of us and a bit more profit for Lill Farms.