New York Organic Farmer Sees Buckwheat Revival and Other Climate Change Adaptations – Lancaster Farming

Cornell summer intern Colin MacDonald, Peter Martens and Klaas Martens (from left) discuss the day’s game plan.
The Martens farm.
Klaas Martens offers a tour of the farm’s state-of-the-art seed cleaning facility.
Harvesting buckwheat.
Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens.
Cornell summer intern Colin MacDonald, Peter Martens and Klaas Martens (from left) discuss the day’s game plan.
PENN YAN, N.Y. — Buckwheat has been out of favor in the Finger Lakes for decades, but one grain farmer thinks now is the time to bring it back.
“Climate change has shifted us out of growing zones for some of our traditional crops, but it’s also shifted us into zones for new crops,” said Klaas Martens, who has farmed in Penn Yan for decades.
The area was a center of buckwheat production 100 years ago.
The crop is indeterminate, meaning it keeps blooming, and needs a killing frost to finish it off. Earlier in Martens’ life, cold valleys could get that frost as soon as late August.
“You could almost set your calendar by it,” he said. “About five days after that first killing frost, Penn Yan started looking like an antique show of all the old trucks coming in with buckwheat on them.”
The Martens farm.
Those trucks were headed to The Birkett Mills, founded in 1797 and one of the largest buckwheat processors in the world.
But by the late 1970s into the early ’80s, Martens said, the warming climate made growing buckwheat locally less and less profitable.
When the crop started to fail, he said, Cornell University suggested swathing it instead of directly combining the frost-killed oats.
“We could harvest it, slice it, let it after-ripen, then pick it up with a windrow pickup. So that was a management change that a few people did in the ’80s when they were trying to hang on to buckwheat,” said Martens, who has farmed organically since the 1990s.
Even that adjustment couldn’t change the fact that buckwheat is a short-season crop.
Klaas Martens offers a tour of the farm’s state-of-the-art seed cleaning facility.
“It doesn’t produce a huge yield, and it was just not competitive as a main crop anymore because we were only using a fraction of our growing season,” Martens said.
Still, he liked that buckwheat roots support microbes that clean up diseases. The roots also produce bicarbonates that free up phosphorus that is bound to iron and aluminum.
“Buckwheat is able to solubilize that phosphorus when no other crop can,” Martens said.
Now, based on Cornell research, conversations with researchers and hands-on experience, Martens has found a way to put buckwheat back into his crop rotation.
He follows wheat with buckwheat as a double crop, then no-tills a winter grain into the buckwheat stubble.
“We’re finding the winter oats actually winter much better in the buckwheat stubble when it’s no-tilled than if it’s clean-tilled,” Martens said. “It gets protection from the buckwheat stubble.”
Such a scenario would require borrowing a page from Cornell’s 1980s playbook in that the buckwheat would have to be swathed, after-ripened, then combined.
Harvesting buckwheat.
It would also provide local farmers with an additional cash crop.
“It will lay for a couple of weeks and ripen and dry,” Martens said. “The rain doesn’t bother it, and you can combine 100 acres easily in a day.”
Reviving buckwheat production is one of several adaptations Martens sees happening as New York’s climate warms.
Production of winter crops, such as barley, lentils and winter peas, has become more reliable.
Double-cropping has become more feasible, most importantly for soybeans.
“When I graduated from college 50 years ago, we were told that it was impossible to double-crop beans after wheat anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” Martens said. “Well, we can do that every year here now in Penn Yan.”
The growing zone for both spring and winter oats is also moving north.
Without public breeding programs to rely on, Martens has been developing winter-hardy oats by himself.
Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens.
He screened out the oats that survived in his wheat and planted them.
“The first year there was quite a lot of winter kill, but the ones that survived were much more hardy,” he said.
Now in the third generation, he said, he’s got a crop of oats that survived the winter almost completely.
Some crops, such as spring barley, are becoming less reliable and profitable as the climate changes, but Martens sees plenty of opportunity to benefit from the extended growing season.
“New York is one of the few places gaining from climate change, because we can grow longer-season corn now than we used to,” he said. “We can grow soybeans.”
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Features Writer

Dan Sullivan is the Digital Content Editor for Lancaster Farming and a former editor and writer for the Rodale Institute’s and Organic Gardening and Biocycle magazines. He can be reached at or 717-428-4438.
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