Organizers of the second annual Skowhegan Kneading Conference are hoping the event not only will inspire local bakers, but that it also will revive grain farming in central Maine.
The four-day event begins Thursday, July 31, with a special public event Friday, Aug. 1.
“We hope to return the Skowhegan area to its heritage as the breadbasket of Maine,” co-organizer Amber Lambke said. “Did you know that in 1837, in Somerset County, 239,000 bushels of wheat were grown, enough to feed 100,000 people a year?”
Organizers are working toward linking farmers with both home and professional bakers and they said there is a large and growing demand for locally produced grains. The Kneading Conference is just one vehicle to begin this effort, they said.
“This could put Skowhegan on the map in a way it has not been before. We are interested in promoting a local, sustainable economy,” Cheryl Barden said. Barden has been building wood-fired ovens for 30 years. “None of us has a clue yet where this could all go.”
Sarah McCabe said the group is getting farmers on board because central Maine bakers “really want this grain” and growing grain could provide Maine’ s diverse farmers with additional value-added products.
In a parallel effort, separate from the conference, Lambke has initiated a proposal to privately buy the Somerset County Jail as a site for a gristmill, a mill store and bakery, which would create up to 12 new jobs.
“We are in a dense belt of organic farms and dairy farms and central Maine farmers are already experimenting with grain,” Lambke said.
“The goal of the conference is to celebrate and inspire the idea of locally growing and milling grain for bread baked in wood-fired ovens,” Lambke said. “It is a way to bring the cycle of food production back to a small circle that fosters ecological and community sustainability. At the center of this idea is the need for partnerships between farmers, millers, oven builders, bakers and community members.”
“We were trying to illustrate these clusters could work together,” Lambke said. “As we progress, we are forming new relationships and connections.”
McCabe said the core group already has held meetings with farmers to get an idea of what is needed and what farmers want and will continue to work with farmers beyond the conference. “There is great potential there for local farmers,” McCabe said.
The Kneading Conference is modeled after the very competitive Camp Bread in California. “Last year, the first year, we were able to pull 100 people together in less than six months. They came from France, Hawaii and California, as well as Maine,” Lambke said. “It was hot as the dickens but we had great fun.”
The conference received a $7,500 grant from the Western Mountains Fund of the Maine Community Foundation and another for $2,000 from the Maine Arts Commission to support the two-day event. The funds are being used to provide scholarships to the conference for local farmers. Ten of the 15 scholarships already are taken.
Professional and home bakers, farmers, millers, oven builders and innovative people are invited to participate, Lambke said. “There will be hands-on demonstrations and lectures on ideas in the art of wood-fired bread baking and food production, local grain growing and milling, and oven building.”
The public is invited to experience and taste breads from the wood-fired ovens and hear keynote addresses from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, at Tewksbury Hall in Skowhegan.
The hall is behind the Federated Church across from the Skowhegan Fire Department.
Dr. Steve Jones will speak and Ciril Hitz and Eli Rugosa will lead baking demonstrations.
Their biographies are:
”  Chef Ciril Hitz is a baking-pastry instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. He received his artistic education at the Rhode Island School of Design and completed a three-year pastry-chocolate apprenticeship in his native Switzerland. He has competed in the National Bread & Pastry Team Championship (2004) held in Atlantic City where his team won first place overall and he individually captured the honors of Best Bread Showpiece, Best Bread Degustation, and Best Viennoiserie Degustation. He was also the artistic category representative on the 2002 Bread Bakers Guild Team which represented the USA at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris, France, and captured the silver medal.
”  Eli Kaufman of Canaan, Maine, and Israel, works with the Fertile Crescent and European Landrace Wheat group to collect and restore the delicious heritage wheats that nourished ancient civilizations but today are almost extinct.
”  Dr. Steven Jones is the winter wheat breeder and a full professor at Washington State University. He teaches graduate courses in advanced transmission genetics and the history and ethics of genetics. Jones serves on the advisory board of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan., and is a member of the board of directors of the Organic Seed Alliance.
For information, go to www.heartofmaine.org/kneading. There are also three video clips of parts of the 2007 conference on www.youtube.com.