By Myrna Stark Leader

If one Manitoba farmer’s vision of the future comes true, the province his Ukrainian grandparents immigrated to will be the largest producer of buckwheat in Canada. 

“It’s not happening today or tomorrow, but it might happen in my lifetime,” says Don Fyk, who farms about four hours northwest of Winnipeg, near Garland, Man.

Fyk is convinced buckwheat is a viable crop choice given its preferred growing conditions, its benefit to the environment, nutritional merits and gluten-free boast. These factors convinced him to plan and build a 5,000-square-foot buckwheat de-hulling plant, which opened in 2019.

Today, Don and his brother Ben seed about two-thirds of their 3,500 acres to buckwheat, making them the largest buckwheat farmers in Manitoba. Yet, it’s a far cry from the 30,000 acres they’d like to contract farmers to produce to meet what Fyk believes is a growing market. 

“We used to supply Japan with buckwheat,” he explains. “China and mainly Washington State capitalized on that market, but there is room to fill the North American and European market.”

A buckwheat refresher

Likely originated in China, the broad-leafed annual probably arrived in North America with colonists in the 1600s. It’s a hull-covered fruit, not a cereal, the same family as rhubarb and sorrel. It’s been called a superfood, containing more protein than rice and more fibre, vitamins and less saturated fat than oats. There is no genetically modified buckwheat, either.

“We had ours tested,” says Fyk. “It’s extremely high in iron, which researchers think comes from our glacial till soil. The average is approximately 14 per cent iron content plus other minerals.”

The first Canadian-developed varieties were released by Agriculture Canada in 1955, two years after Fyk was born. Since then, newer varieties were developed to combat weather-related yield variability, to self-pollinate and to have unique starch properties.

Highly nutritious, buckwheat is a staple in other countries. In Japan, the flour is made into soba noodles. Eastern Europeans eat it as cereal or in side dishes. However, buckwheat isn’t as common in North America.

In Fyk’s view, that’s a shame and an opportunity for two reasons—the growing gluten-free market and climate change. Buckwheat needs little to no additional nitrogen and minimal pesticides. Fyk grows Kota and Koma varieties, both bred for larger triangular seeds. 

He believes so strongly in future markets that 15 years ago he started working towards creating an on-farm de-hulling and packaging operation. Today, the plant wholesales clean, de-hulled seeds, packaged in 50-pound bags, or 2,200-pound totes, but he’s not stopping there.

Buckwheat has family roots

When they came to Canada from Ukraine in 1904, Fyk’s grandparents lived on the edge of the Duck Mountains, largely because they could live off the land, growing cereals, a garden and eating wildlife. The same year, they established a homestead near Garland, a piece of land Fyk regained ownership of about five years ago. Although he doesn’t live there, the parcel is part of his history.

“At first, I just played at farming,” says Fyk from his farm home office where FYK Soba Inc. now includes the farm, the plant, heavy equipment construction and equipment repair, a provincially appointed vehicle safety inspection station and an aerial application business. 

He recalls making more money trapping and playing in a band than farming, which helped pay for school. As many farm kids do, he developed skills early. His dad had him pushing snow with big equipment by age seven.

“In my early 20s, I already owned some heavy equipment. At 22, I had my first contract with the Province of Manitoba putting finishing touches on highway ditches and such. I made good coin and also became a Red Seal heavy-duty journeyman mechanic.”

Recognizing the need for diversification today, in addition to farming land he took over from his dad in the early ’90s, he still repairs heavy equipment and is a senior vehicle safety inspector in Manitoba.

“Dad grew buckwheat, amongst other more conventional crops. Local stores would ask him for hulled buckwheat, usually around Christmas and Easter when Ukrainians use it more in traditional dishes. Dad used an old crusher. Then, my grandmother would spend hours picking through to get clean kernels. They’d sell it bulk and the store would repackage it for sale,” he recalls. 

Today, price is an important factor in rejuvenating buckwheat, which has lost favour to crops like canola. 

“Farmers today are a generation removed from knowing about buckwheat. They think it needs TLC but it’s more like a weed. It likes to be seeded into dry ground. There should be dust behind the seeder. Planted at the same depth as canola, it germinates in two to five days. Then it likes a little moisture, but prefers a drier growing season and it doesn’t need extra nitrogen. If these conditions are favourable, it will outgrow the weeds,” he explains. “Farmers are brainwashed that if you don’t put 100 pounds of fertilizer, you’re not going to get a crop.”

When Fyk consults with farmers considering buckwheat, he advises a soil sample. But 10 to one, he suggests they ditch fertilizer application the first year and think about less herbicide and pesticide. He’s found a yearly early cultivation in the spring to loosen the soil and start a growth of weeds, then a pre-burn with glyphosate before seeding effective. Usually, no pesticide is required. Using this crop management plant, he’s seeded buckwheat seven years in a row in the same field, using less fertilizer and chemical, better for the environment.

As for yield, he says Manitoba crop insurance’s average is about 17 bushels/acre. 

“We’ve had as high as 40 bushels per acre clean. One customer got over 40 bushels at $24 a bushel. Do the math. With seed, fertilizer and chemical, you’re looking at $425/acre for canola. Buckwheat seed is about $36 bucks an acre. Even with a total crop failure on both crops, you’re ahead with buckwheat because you didn’t spend on inputs.”

The brothers regularly grow canola, wheat, oats and buckwheat, which has been profitable for them. “The last couple years, we’ve averaged 25 to 30 bushels. I’m quite happy with that,” says Fyk.

De-hulling plant born through connections

Fyk says the death of the CWB forced him to learn how to market his crops.

“Until 2009, we depended on somebody else to do the marketing and sales of buckwheat, but as I got more involved with farm management and sales, I started looking for options. Prices weren’t what they should be. And, over time, several grain companies that were pooling and selling it merged until no one was willing to buy,” explains Fyk.

A few years prior, his high school friend, then a local mayor with a Japanese sister city, was welcoming someone from Japan who wanted to see buckwheat. Fyk obliged and gained one Japanese connection. Another important connection was with Ted Iizuka, president of Soba Canada in Toronto, Ont. 

In 2009, Iizuka was in Manitoba to inspect a buckwheat purchase from a major grain company, but there was just one problem. “The product wasn’t fresh enough,” he says. 

“Somehow, through his communication to Japan, he got my name and called me. I was flabbergasted.”

Surprised as he was, he welcomed a meeting and gained a customer. In 2009, Soba Canada began sourcing about 2,000 pounds annually of buckwheat from Fyk to make soba noodles. 

“[Iizuka] ran a small de-hulling and milling operation from his home in Mississauga and served his elite customers soba noodles once a week in his Toronto-area restaurant. He also sold soba flour and noodles to high-end customers in places like Montreal, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. With COVID-19, a lot of food businesses had to shut due to health regulations. Soba Canada folded and [Iizuka] returned to Japan.”

Always on the hunt for new markets, Iizuka helped Fyk establish connections with other companies in Japan like JBMA, Chuo Trading and Shimadaya Corporation. 

“Since no one in Canada was pooling buckwheat, we went into business as Fyk Soba Inc.” 

However, China was also increasing production and selling it cheaper, particularly as freight and shipping costs increased for Prairie farmers. The Japanese market slowed but with persistence Fyk connected with Birkett Mills in New York, and began to sell to them immediately in 2014. Birkett Mills processes Fyk’s buckwheat supplying Dr. Schär, a gluten-free Italian food company with facilities across Europe and United States.

“We hold an exclusive buckwheat contract for Manitoba and Saskatchewan to supply Birkett Mills,” he says. “Why cater to 120 million people in Japan, when you have a half a billion people in North America?” he asks rhetorically. “In 2016, we exported nearly 5,000 metric tonnes to the United States alone.”

Fighting for Ukraine, farmer style

More recently, Fyk responded to a call by the Ukrainian Embassy, shipping 140 metric tonnes of buckwheat seed to Ukraine.

“They sent multiple emails to companies, provinces and states looking for seed. I cancelled some other contracts to send seed there,” explains Fyk. “We worked with the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa and the president of the buckwheat association in Ukraine because they were sourcing seed from Kazakhstan and Russia. Of course, that’s not going to happen. We were the only one in Canada to do this.”  

With support from Canada-Ukraine Foundation, Soba’s seed and freight costs were absorbed by the Foundation.    

“It felt great to help,” he says.

Future plans

Canada remains a larger exporter of buckwheat than a processor. But that could change.

Fyk is continually testing new varieties looking for a larger seed more suitable for milling. He has varied seeding methods, with packer wheels versus floating the seed on. The latter, minus 60 pounds of fertilizer added to the packed crop, did better. Another area of study is trying to increase pollination rates on domestic buckwheat.

“Maybe there’s some tricks you can’t teach this old dog but maybe I can still learn some new tricks, too,” says Fyk with a grin. “We have a stone mill coming from Soba Canada. Stone milling is a slow process, producing more coarse flour, but great for soba noodles. If it runs faster than 14 revolutions a minute, the stone will heat. Another customer needs finer flour. The new mill would enable us to do approximately 1,000 pounds an hour.” 

Although buckwheat arrives clean at the plant, a colour sorter removes any last gluten particles to maintain a high gluten-free standard.

“We commissioned MNP to do a business plan about five years ago when the plant opened that said dependency on gluten-free products will increase 12 to 15 per cent a year,” says Fyk.

One challenge may be changing the mindset of those using buckwheat in their products who believe the price will fall as more is grown. Fyk disagrees saying the marketplace has to pay more because buckwheat competes with other commodities for farm acres. 

“COVID tightened demand for food. Food retailers could have kept prices higher, more in line with the real cost of farm production, but they didn’t train customers that food is cheap at the expense of farmers who take all the risk, with everyone down the line getting a free ride with a 25 per cent margin, give or take.”

Fyk still speaks his first language, an older form of Ukrainian taught by his grandparents. It’s helped him communicate with Ukraine and also with Canada’s newest Ukrainian immigrants, at least one he hopes to employ given their farm background. While he knows the world doesn’t go backward, resurgence could be positive.

“I wish I would have been a fly on the wall at the turn of the century when there was a home going up every quarter-mile. Today, our nearest neighbours are half-a-mile and three miles away. We farm today what 30 families farmed before. Do we need it?” he asks. “Maybe, given the way the world and economy is designed. However, I would still like to go back and have all those farmer neighbours.”