Julie and Geoff Brown are growers of highly sought after Australian buckwheat. Baking Business speaks to Julie about the challenges of producing this versatile grain.
Tell us a bit about Buckwheat Enterprises:
Buckwheat Enterprises has been exporting buckwheat to Japan since the 1970s and they built their specialty grain-processing facility on rail at Parkes, NSW, in 1993. Buckwheat is used in Japan for noodles (soba) and Australian grown buckwheat is highly sought after for the fresh soba noodle restaurants in Japan.
When the Japanese tsunami hit Fukushima in 2011 people stopped eating out at restaurants to save money. The tsunami occurred just before the 2011 Australian buckwheat harvest started and their market disappeared. Previously reluctant to process buckwheat for the domestic market, and having to compete with cheap imported Chinese buckwheat; they had no choice but to begin processing gluten-free buckwheat for the Australian market. They were successful and are now Australia’s leading supplier of gluten-free buckwheat flour and kernels for bakeries and foods processors, and have a dedicated gluten-free mill and are professional members of Coeliac Australia.
For those unfamiliar, what is buckwheat?
Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is a broadleaf summer crop, distantly related to dock and rhubarb. The “grain” (seed) is botanically a fruit and continues to ripen during storage. One of the reasons our buckwheat is so highly sought after in Japan is because it’s freshly harvested while their buckwheat has been in storage for more than six months. For the best soba noodles you need fresh buckwheat. This is the same reason Bio-Oz buckwheat flour and kernels are so highly regarded in Australia as imported buckwheat flour and kernels could be more than 12 months old.
Why did you decide to grow it?
Geoff started growing buckwheat on his farm at Blayney, NSW during the late 1970s as a summer crop to control weeds prior to planting pasture. He got more involved with the managers of Buckwheat Enterprises and started helping with the exporting. In 1992 he sold his Blayney farm to become part of Buckwheat Enterprises and built the new facility still currently in use at Parkes.
When is it harvested?
Buckwheat is harvested from late March to late May.
What are some of the challenges of growing, harvesting, processing and selling buckwheat?
Drought. Early frost in autumn. Hot dry weather during summer and hail. Exchange rates and the Japanese economy when it comes to exporting. Contamination with cereal grains (Australian gluten-free market). Our growers are very aware of machinery clean down, but we always colour sort before processing begins. If it’s a cool wet autumn we need to dry the buckwheat. Juggling supply and demand is always a problem with specialty crops, we need to pay growers and that is difficult if there’s a surplus crop. If there’s a shortfall we won’t import, so we share it best we can between our long-term customers.
Are there many growers of buckwheat in Australia?
It varies from year to year. We have approximately 15 growers, both dry land and irrigation.
What can you use buckwheat in?
Buckwheat flour can be used to make bread, pancakes (a favourite!), cakes, biscuits and crackers. Buckwheat kernels are used for muesli, muesli bars, breakfast cereals, kasha and as an alternative to rice in stir-fries, soups and casseroles.