Grad student wins fellowship to study buckwheat’s potential

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – Rachel Breslauer didn’t grow up in an agricultural setting. Hailing from a town an hour and a half outside New York City, she became interested in food security and food justice in high school.

A woman in a field surrounded by a plant with small pink flowers.
Rachel Breslauer in a field of field of buckwheat.

While earning her bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, Breslauer worked a few on-farm research projects in dairy and cropping systems. Those experiences brought her to WSU, where she earned a master’s degree. Now she’s working on a Ph.D. in WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, focusing on alternative crops and looking at how to bring newer crops and diversity into fields.

“I’m a very people-focused person,” Breslauer said. “I love working with farmers and consumers, improving the connection between the people growing food and the people who buy it.”

Breslauer plans to graduate with her doctorate in 2023 and applied for a U.S. Department of Agriculture fellowship program to support her studies.

“I’m very impressed by the work Rachel has been doing,” said Kevin Murphy, her advisor and WSU associate professor of international seed and cropping systems. “She definitely deserves this fellowship, and I see it having a positive economic impact for farmers interested in growing buckwheat. I’m excited to work with Rachel through this fellowship, and to contribute to the crop diversification research she’ll be conducting with buckwheat.”

In Washington state, buckwheat is often grown as a cover crop, not harvested or sold. Breslauer will investigate whether growers can turn buckwheat into a profitable crop thanks to a new USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture predoctoral fellowship.

A woman sits on a side seat of a tractor holding a bucket of seeds. A man is driving the tractor
Rachel Breslauer helps seed a field with buckwheat in Northwest Washington.

“We know cover crops are valuable,” she said. “The main question is, what varieties can perform well as cover crops and be productive as well?”

To answer that question, Breslauer received the $120,000 NIFA Agriculture and Research Initiative fellowship, which includes professional development, research, and travel funding.

Cover crops are planted primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, help control pests, and diseases, or other benefits. But they are often plowed under and not harvested for sale.

Buckwheat seeds, however, can be sold and milled into gluten-free buckwheat flour. It’s used to make pancakes, breads, cookies, and is very popular for making soba noodles. Soba means buckwheat in Japanese and Japan is the largest market for selling the crop.

Buckwheat is grown in central Washington state for export to Japan. It must be grown carefully to make sure that buckwheat seeds don’t contaminate wheat grown later in the field. Buckwheat is a common allergen that can’t be mixed with wheat shipments.

As gluten-free products grow in popularity in the U.S., the domestic market for buckwheat flour is growing. If growers are already growing it as a cover crop, why not harvest it?

“Buckwheat is very short-seasoned, it can go from planting to harvest in as little as 10 weeks,” Breslauer said. “It would be planted at the same time as when used as a cover crop, but kept a few weeks longer than normal so it can go to seed.”

Breslauer is based at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, Wash., and her work will be on research plots at Viva Farms in Burlington and the Organic Seed Alliance Research Farm in Chimacum. She completed two field trials last year as preliminary work, funded through WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources BioAg grant program.

The USDA fellowship funds her assistantship, allocates extra funds for project assistance, enables her to send seed to collaborators at the Crop Research Institute in the Czech Republic for varietal testing, and enables her to travel to several conferences during the award period.

Breslauer is also involved in a separate project assessing how buckwheat varieties perform in different food products, which will help identify market opportunities for the crop in the Pacific Northwest.