Port, WSU team up to evaluate buckwheat’s potential in Skagit
By Mark Stayton, November 4, 2014, Skagit Valley Herald
Researchers at Washington State University in Mount Vernon and staff at the Port of Skagit are investigating the possibilities of a new crop for Skagit County: buckwheat.
The green pseudo-cereal crop is a key ingredient in several specialty products and is being evaluated for production here.
Port Executive Director Patsy Martin said part of the potential for buckwheat lies in an extreme inefficiency taking place in the world market now — related to her by Los Angeles-based soba noodle maker Sonoko Sakai.
Currently, buckwheat grown in Eastern Washington is shipped to Japan and milled into flour in a specific way for the production of soba noodles.
That special flour is then shipped back from Japan to noodle makers along the U.S. West Coast and distributed to the American market, Martin said.
“That seemed to make no sense to us,” Martin said of the two cross-ocean trips buckwheat makes before hitting the market as a finished product. “There’s an opportunity to establish a mill in the valley, grow it here and sell to chefs across the West Coast.”
Washington was the second-largest producer of buckwheat in the nation behind North Dakota in 2012, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. If high-quality buckwheat can be grown profitably here, and if a specialized flour mill can find its home here, Martin said the grain could be a good fit for local farmers.
Testing the crop
Bethany Econopouly, a Ph.D student researching plant breeding at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, started a preliminary trial of North American and Japanese buckwheat varieties earlier this year.
Out of 10 varieties, three were eliminated because they didn’t perform in test fields surrounding the center. On Thursday, samples of three of the the remaining crops were shipped to Yoshitomo Arakawa, a soba flour miller in Tokyo, for evaluation.
Flour from the samples will then be sent to Sakai, who will give the university feedback on which varieties performed the best in noodle production, Econopouly said.
With data from field tests and input from soba noodle masters, researchers will focus on the best varieties for further testing of hybridization, quality and production on working farms.
Buckwheat is a low-input crop, meaning it doesn’t need a lot of extra fertilization, and could work well as a rotation crop, Econopouly said.
“It’s relatively inexpensive to grow for a farmer,” Econopouly said. “The question is, do we have the infrastructure to process it?”
Building a business model
The port recently applied for a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Commerce to prepare a feasibility study for locating a specialized buckwheat mill in Skagit County.
Heather Haslip, planning and environmental project administrator for the port, said the study would help craft a business and marketing plan and look at potential public-private partnerships. The port would match the state funds with $16,000 if awarded the grant, Haslip said. “
It is exciting,” Haslip said. “We want to make sure we’re able to conduct a feasibility study before investments are made.”
With large noodle markets in Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, as well as demand for buckwheat as a cereal, Martin said the crop has potential in the county.
“We’re looking at a variety of ways to get buckwheat into a business model where businesses could add value to it and establish it as a viable crop,” Martin said.