For the past 40 years, the Bouchard Family Farm, in Fort Kent, has occupied a niche as one of the country’s few growers and millers of Tartary buckwheat. They’ve typically used the bulk of it to make their own mix for ployes, the crepe-like flatbreads that Acadians who settled the Saint John Valley once served at every meal. “In the last few years, that’s flipped,” Jan Bouchard says. “Now, most of our flour goes to customers who are making their own products.”
One of those products is Diggables, airy, crunchy buckwheat puffs that hit shelves in Maine stores this summer. They’re the creation of Yarmouth resident Toby Ahrens, a Stanford-educated biogeochemist who has worked on sustainable, bio-based product development as both a grant administrator and business consultant. His initial idea was to use breweries’ spent grains — the unlovely but highly nutritious barley-based byproduct of beer production — but the result was too dense. Then, Ahrens tried adding the Bouchards’ buckwheat, which put some much-needed puff in those prototype barley puffs. In fact, he says, “buckwheat had so much going for it that we decided to pivot away from spent grains — it could do everything we were looking for.”
Buckwheat is not wheat. It’s not even a grain. A member of the rhubarb family, it’s an herb that produces small, brown, nutty seeds rich in antioxidants, fiber, and protein. Tartary buckwheat’s cold resistance made it a staple among Acadian farmers. Part of the recent uptick in its wider popularity owes to it being gluten-free. Most important to Ahrens, buckwheat is a star of regenerative agriculture. Farmers have long used it as a cover crop on fallow fields to prevent soil erosion, crowd out weeds, store and replenish phosphorus, and nourish pollinators. Its fast growth rate makes it especially valuable in the era of climate change, Ahrens says, because farmers who lose a crop to heat stress or drought can recoup some of their losses by planting buckwheat.
Snackers, Ahrens realizes, mostly care how Diggables taste. (They are indeed addictively good.) They come in sea-salt, sharp-cheddar, and garden-herb varieties, and Ahrens is refining spicy-seaweed and apple-cinnamon flavors with the help of University of Maine’s food pilot plant and his taste-testing sons, ages 15, 13, and 9.
Presently, Diggables are only available in stores as far north as the Bangor metro, but they have a fan up in Fort Kent: Jan Bouchard’s father-in-law, Alban. He and his late wife, Rita, saved the family farm by introducing buckwheat ploye mixes in the 1980s, when Aroostook County’s potato industry was in decline. Alban gives Diggables a thumb’s-up, Jan says, “and that’s saying something, because he’s really fussy.”
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