Portland restaurateur, Aroostook farmers boost Maine buckwheat

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PORTLAND — Tak Sato wants Japanese buckwheat to take the country by storm, with the whirlwind starting on an Aroostook County farm.

“American people need this food; it is very good for the body,” Sato said June 7 at his Yosaku restaurant on Danforth Street.

Classified as a fruit seed, the flour from gluten-free buckwheat is the key ingredient for soba noodles, the Japanese staple Sato described as thinner than spaghetti.

Long a crop on Sato’s native Hokkaido Island in northern Japan, buckwheat is in such demand that Sato is now in a joint venture with owners of the organic Aurora Mills & Farm in Linneus for growing and processing.

“Delicious food that is good for consumers is my final goal,” he said.

Reaching the goal includes a trip to Hokkaido this week with farm owners Matthew and Linda Williams, their daughter, Sara Flewelling, and her husband, Marcus Flewelling.

“We are really excited about learning and growing it,” Sara Flewelling said June 8.

Buckwheat is not new to Aroostook County; the Acadian variety is a common crop, Flewelling said. Last year, after Sato and the Williams family were connected by Brian Doyle of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Sato provided enough Japanese buckwheat seeds for the Williams family to plant 11 acres.

At the 300-acre farm started by her father in 1999, the family grows grains and oats found in Borealis Breads, Grandy Oats granola and Allagash beer. Crops are rotated to include legumes to replace nitrogen in the soil, Flewelling said.

“I love Japanese food, I already love soba and ramen,” she said. “It is exciting, but it is about diversification.”

She characterized Japanese buckwheat as lighter in color and sweeter in taste than the Acadian variety, and said it has an added benefit.

“It suppresses weeds,” Flewelling said. “It is a great smother crop.”

Last year’s yield of 3,000 pounds impressed both the farmers and Sato.

“There are a lot of challenges; the seeds are very hardy,” Flewelling said. “If they are on the ground, they grow back in.”

Sato bought the entire 2016 harvest and served it at Yosaku.

“I started by making it for my employees,” he said. “They loved it.”

This year, the Williamses planted buckwheat on 30 acres.

Buckwheat farming on Hokkaido is traditional, but supplies only 30 percent of demand, Sato said. With good connections and an Aroostook County climate very similar to his homeland, Sato and the Williams family are poised to enter new markets.

All grains harvested at Aurora can be ground on site, and Sato installed the equipment needed to grind flour in the basement of Yosaku. He said he will need more space as demand increases and has interest from distributors in New York City.

Sato expects buckwheat to catch on just as quickly as other Japanese cuisine.

“Fifty years ago, everybody was laughing at sushi, (saying) people in the USA would never eat raw fish,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Tak Sato processes buckwheat grown at Aurora Mills & Farm in Aroostook County in the basement of Yosaku, his restaurant on Danforth street in Portland.

Japanese buckwheat grown in Linneus, near Houlton, is the primary ingredient in soba noodles served at Yosaku restaurant on Danforth Street in Portland.

Yosaku owner Tak Sato is spending this week in Japan, hoping to expand his Maine-grown buckwheat venture.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.
  • Darren McLellan

    Tak has one of if not the best sushi joints in town. Nice to see him working with farmers to bring more local food to the table.