{Scaling Up the Northeast Grains System} Maine Grains

Editor’s Note:  Our first ‘Community Voices’ contributor Amy Halloran is back with her 2nd installment of ‘Scaling Up the Northeast Grains System’, her investigation into local grain production past and present. This month she brings us her exciting trip to Skowhegan, Maine. You can read Amy’s first post here. -Christina


I went to Maine in February for a little grain tour. I was excited to meet some people I’d interviewed over the phone last year for a story on bread and grains: Amber Lambke from the Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan, and Ellen Mallory from the University of Maine.

First stop was a tour of the mill that is coming together in the former Somerset County Jail. The project already has lots of other food activity already underway – a farmers market site, winter storage for vegetable farmers, multi-farm CSA pickup – plus a couple of retail enterprises. The old jail sits across the street from an old mill site. In other words, everything sounds perfect, but I’d been skeptical whether the structure could shake itself free from its other use.

Turns out the building is great for a mill. The concrete reinforced walls and floors will block milling noise from the surrounding neighborhood. By carving holes in that concrete, the mill can take advantage of gravity for its operations. And those holes help erase the reality of the building’s original purpose.

Maybe I’m just too goofy for grains, but I really didn’t get an echo of the aches that must have happened inside the jail. Somehow, the mill is clearing the emotional slate of this space.

The attractiveness of the milling equipment helps. The flour mill is imported from Austria, and very easy on the eyes. Grain cleaning tools from the 1930s and earlier have a quaint air. A dehuller with roller mills at the bottom for flaking oats has sturdiness, and the industrial charm of a certain era.

The mill should be up and running by the end of this growing season to help Maine farmers get their grains to market – a market that is eager for local grains. A lot of people and organizations are working to help build the infrastructure – farmer knowledge, equipment, and other logistical support – necessary to develop this market.

Part of this effort is a daylong workshop Ellen Mallory put together on grain production for food and feed. Eighty people registered for the day, which began with a panel of buyers discussing grain markets in the state.

Amber Lambke talked about the mill’s progress, what tools it will be able to offer farmers, and what kinds of grains the mill will need.

Maria Reynolds from Crown O’ Maine, an organic cooperative, talked about their grain products: Maine milled rye and spelt, Maine grown and milled oats and wheat.

Matt Williams from Aurora Mills and Farm, which has been milling since 2003 and growing wheat since 1999, spoke about his experiences with farmers bringing in grain to mill and flake, what kind of quality is required.

Lowell Rheinheimer from the CROPP Cooperative at Organic Valley, the national dairy cooperative, spoke about Maine Organic Milling, which is a cooperatively owned mill that’s making feed for cows.

The panel began the day’s conversation on grains for food and feed. Food grade is for human consumption; feed grade is for animals. Various qualities, such as falling number and percent of protein can show how a grain will perform as flour and determine whether a crop makes feed or food grade. (Falling number shows how much sprouting has occurred in the field.) Of course, a lot of other factors come into play, too, like the varieties planted, and GMO contamination interfering with organic certification regardless of who the grain feeds.

Thor Oechsner of Oechsner Farms spoke next, detailing a seven-year crop rotation and talking about the diversity of his markets – straw for horses, seed clover, buckwheat, rye, oats for feed and seed, emmer, spelt, and of course wheat. He sells to distilleries, and is part owner of both a bakery and a mill, Farmer Ground Flour, and Wide Awake Bakery.

He talked for almost two hours, showing slides of his farm at work, and the different equipment he uses to get crops ready for market. You can see the slideshow he used here. This man should have a TED talk, or better yet, a reality show about grain farming. The contagion of his enthusiasm could reverse the phenomenon of vanishing farmers. Throughout the day, a lot of farmers came up to him and said he’d really inspired them to add grains to their farms.

Rick Kersbergen of UMaine Extension spoke about developing the grain industry in the state, and possible crop rotations to get dairymen into bread wheat production.

After lunch, two Maine farmers spoke about their experiences with grain: Alice Percy of Treble Ridge Farm, and Jake Dyer from a teaching farm run by UMaine. Percy talked about growing grains for hogs, and milling flour for farmers markets’ sales. Dyer showed how growing barley on farm reduced operating costs for the dairy herd.

Researcher Elizabeth Dyck of OGRIN, The Organic Growers Research and Information-Sharing Network, gave a great talk about establishing a regional grain economy. An agronomist, she believes that small grains are essential crops for long-term sustainability in both organic field crop and vegetable systems.

She gave an overview of what has happened with grains so far in New York and Pennsylvania, and what else needs to happen: developing milling and dehulling capacity, sourcing small scale equipment, and working out prices between growers and buyers. Overall, she pointed to the necessity to build a community to meet consumer demand for local grains.

This community includes experienced, committed growers, as well as bakers, millers, chefs, and food processors. Help from the land-grant universities is crucial, as is marketing assistance from organizations like NYC’s Greenmarket. She also showed the example of French farmer-bakers who are growing, milling and baking wheat on farm as a possible model.

Ellen Mallory talked about the research portion of the Northern New England Local Bread Wheat Project, a USDA-SARE funded project. She discussed the focus of the wheat research, on varieties, fertility and weed management and rotations. (Check out the website for a wealth of information, including factsheets that dive into the wheat and bread facts I can barely touch in a blog post, and videos of grain tours in Quebec and Denmark.)

The long day ended with a roundtable of diehard grainheads brainstorming on how to rebuild Maine’s grain system. The need is there – locavores in New England are hungry for non-commodity wheats. Capital and infrastructure are wanting, and with the help of programs like this, hopefully falling into place.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Ona says:

    Love it!
    This is truly needed and it’s great to see so much effort going into making it happen.

  2. Yes Ona, it is amazing to see what is happening to make grains happen around here. The people involved are very passionate and excited about this. Glad you love it too.

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