Mid-May has just passed, the fine weather is setting in for good and a rain shower has moistened the land: this is the ideal picture to kick off the buckwheat sowing season. As every year since 2006, Christine Larsonneur, director of the Blé noir tradition Bretagne (BNTB) association, was preparing to begin these spring festivities. But his organization, which has managed the cultivation, storage and transformation of seed into flour since 1987 in Brittany, feared the worst.
“We were 30% short of growers compared to last year,” she admits. Speculation on the prices of common wheat, sunflower or rapeseed is so strong, due to the international context, that some have abandoned buckwheat for what they consider more profitable. Not to mention that Russia and Ukraine are on the podium of the world’s largest buckwheat producers, along with China.
So, faced with the risk of shortage, Christine Larsonneur pulled out all the stops: a call to growers on social networks and in the press to try the adventure of BNTB buckwheat, which has a protected geographical indication and a notebook strict charges. Seventy people out of the 150 needed responded on May 11. The goal ? Avoid that, at the end of the chain, the pancake makers run out of flour.
A paradoxical situation in a region that has long been home to a large part of French buckwheat production, after its introduction in the 15th century. In the 1860s, half of the 740,000 hectares of buckwheat grown in France was in Brittany. Nicknamed buckwheat, this flowering plant of the Polygonaceae family supported many homes. Intensive agriculture, fluctuating and lower yields of buckwheat compared to wheat or corn almost wiped out its presence in the 1980s. As a result, today more than 70% of buckwheat consumed in France is imported.
According to the regional directorate for food, agriculture and forests, some 5,000 hectares were cultivated in Brittany in 2020 out of just over 43,000 in France. In his flour mill in Ploërmel (Morbihan), the talkative manager, Jean-Julien Genest, has been worried for longer: “It’s been two years since I’ve had trouble getting supplies of French buckwheat. Its large industrial customers have only recently become interested in the provenance of buckwheat: “Previously, the origin did not matter to them, but now they all ask for French buckwheat. We’re overwhelmed! In order to make up for the shortage, he himself reserved 1,000 hectares of land for the production of this cereal for his crepe maker customers.
Beer, crisps and roasted seeds
At the time of the climate crisis, the pretty white flower has real virtues. “It’s a seed that doesn’t need fertilizer or a lot of work. We sow it and we harvest it, without intervening otherwise, ”explains Aurélien Gouot, agricultural engineer for the Chambers of Agriculture of Brittany, commissioned to promote it.
Alongside the fruit she produces and the honey she collects in the coastal town of Saint-Lunaire (Ille-et-Vilaine), Alice Saule has opted for organic buckwheat with the BNTB association and in partnership with the agri-food group Eureden. In front of her computer, the 42-year-old farmer monitors the weather and the arrival of the rain to start her first sowing of 10 hectares. “On my farm, I try to create a global dynamic around ecological transition and buckwheat fits perfectly into this. It is a crop that gives a lot of honey, it is even said that it makes the bees healthier,” she says with a smile. For the one who worked for twenty years in agricultural supplies before starting her activity, the lack of communication on this culture prevents her from knowing the recognition she deserves.
Another obstacle to its development is the lack of seed varieties: only one is used in the vast majority today in the region. “It is not always adapted to the context and the uses, which can disgust those who get started and do not get out,” laments Véronique Chable, engineer at the National Institute of Research for Agriculture, l food and the environment (Inrae) of Rennes. With around forty experienced farmers, the biologist is working on the development of varieties more in tune with new consumption. Buckwheat is available in particular in beer, crisps and roasted seeds. “In two or three years, if everyone gets involved, we can really help production to resume locally,” she hopes.
Will this shortage have an influence on the price of the complete pancake by then? Gilles Stéphant, president of the Fédération de la crêperie, which has around a hundred members, is not alarmed: “In the composition of a galette, flour represents only 7% of the selling price. The increase should be in the order of a few cents for now. However, he calls for efforts at the national level so that the situation does not worsen: “The various crises, the Covid, the war in Ukraine, have made us aware of the need to act in France. So we too are campaigning with elected officials for more buckwheat grown here. The surge in Breton buckwheat cultivation will be measured between September and October, at harvest time.