The Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) at Chatham University is exploring the history and impact of grains on Pennsylvania’s economy and culture through its new Western Pennsylvania Foodways Archive.
Through its interviews with regional farmers, millers, and other grains processors, the CRAFT team learned that an unsung crop has proven itself to be remarkably integral to Pennsylvania’s economy and heritage: buckwheat.
Because buckwheat is actually a fruit seed and not a grain, it is classified with quinoa and amaranth as a pseudo-cereal. Since buckwheat is not related to wheat, it therefore is gluten-free, which makes it increasingly popular as public sensitivity to gluten is on the rise. Buckwheat is also a useful cover crop, which helps enrich soil and reduce erosion. Buckwheat’s flowers are also highly attractive to honeybees, important agricultural pollinators whose population has been dwindling dangerously in recent years according to the USDA, and who therefore need all the ecological support they can get. Buckwheat’s prominence in Pennsylvania agriculture was revealed in part by interviews and data on Western Pennsylvania’s grain industry, collected by CRAFT staff and students. These interviews are being archived in CRAFT’s Western Pennsylvania Foodways Collection, a collection of stories, recipes, video, and written text that use food as a tool to uncover a meaningful past and look towards the future for our region’s food identity.
Within this collection, one project entitled “Babka and Beyond: Bread Grains and Baked Goods in Western Pennsylvania” explores in-depth stories about the many ways agriculture and baking contribute to larger regional themes of identity, community, and social capital. This project includes a series of oral history interviews that aim to record a previously undocumented segment of Western Pennsylvania culture and labor, many of which are available online at the and on CRAFT’s new YouTube channel to house the related video.
CRAFT continues to regularly add new projects to the collection, and conduct new interviews especially focusing on buckwheat farmers and value-added processors.
We learned in our first Babka and Beyond project that Butler county was once known as “Buckwheat” County, which is really what sparked our interest on the topic. Today, there are very few buckwheat farmers in the region, and this project aims to discover how and why this decline happened, who is still producing the agricultural product, and who and where the market is for this product now. Interestingly enough, we’re learning that many of the new immigrant communities coming to Pittsburgh use buckwheat in their cuisine, so there may be an emerging market for buckwheat that is different from the past, but ties together Pittsburgh’s past food identity with the more diverse and global food identity of today.