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Humans need new crops that can survive climate change. Buckwheat could be a contender.

Tartary buckwheat seeds can be milled into flour and used in breads and cakes, or eaten as whole grains.
Courtesy of the University of New Hampshire
Tartary buckwheat seeds can be milled into flour and used in breads and cakes, or eaten as whole grains.

As the climate changes, bringing more heat and heavier storms, conditions are getting tougher for farmers. At the University of New Hampshire, researchers are looking into a new crop – a special type of buckwheat – that could grow well in a more uncertain climate.

It’s called Tartary buckwheat.

Iago Hale, a professor of specialty crop improvement at the university, says it tastes pretty much the same as common buckwheat, like the kind you can get in buckwheat pancakes.

“It has this slight bitter taste to it, which I really like,” he said. “Part of that has to do with some of the nutritional compounds in it.”

Hale is a plant geneticist, and his work focuses on crops that have been overlooked but have potential to grow well in a more uncertain climate and help diversify our food system.

He says buckwheat has gotten kind of a bad reputation. It grows in soils that aren’t very nutrient rich, so it has been associated with poor farmers.

“It was what you would grow if you couldn't grow anything else,” he said. “And often you would see buckwheat being grown when a farm was getting ready to go under.”

University of New Hampshire researchers are growing buckwheat plants at the Woodman Horticultural Research Farm.
Courtesy
/
University of New Hampshire
University of New Hampshire researchers are growing buckwheat plants at the Woodman Horticultural Research Farm.

But Hale says the characteristics that gave buckwheat that reputation are what could make it so successful. It grows almost like a weed.

“One of the things that makes weeds so annoying is that they grow anywhere,” he said. “They don’t need to be pampered. They can grow out of concrete. They’re there in the floods and the rain and the heat and the drought.”

That, he said, is exactly what we need in food crops, if we want them to thrive as climate change drives harsher conditions for farmers.

Buckwheat does well in drought, heat, and flooded soil. The plants don’t need lots of fertilizer, or nice soils, and they work well in places with short growing seasons, like the Northeast. Hale says, it’s a super nutritious grain. It’s gluten free. And it tastes good.

“It checks off a lot of boxes,” he said. “Food culture, maybe, has changed enough that we can have people look at this crop in a different way, and we can kind of get beyond some of the social stigmas around it that have plagued it for a long time.”

Tartary buckwheat has similar properties to common buckwheat, but it's easier to breed, because it can self-pollinate. That’s a plus for Hale, who hopes to come up with a variety of the plant that farmers could buy as seeds and grow locally.

That could take years. But, he says, it’s important to start now.

“We’re going to need new crops in place to deal with our new climate reality,” he said. “There’s a lot of work in the meantime so that we’re ready to make that happen.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.