$40,000 grant to benefit Skowhegan grain project

Posted Jan. 26, 2009, at 8:17 p.m.

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — A $40,000 grant will help a local group expand local grain production, building on a gristmill plan already in action with the recent purchase of the former Somerset County Jail.

Heart of Maine Resource Conservation and Development in Bangor, and the Kneading Conference in the Skowhegan area have been awarded the grant funding from the Maine Community Foundation.

Growing local grain is an integral part of the Kneading Conference and founder Amber Lambke’s plan to revive the industry in central Maine.

Lambke also bought the former Somerset County Jail last week and plans to renovate the facility to accommodate a gristmill, bakery and other artisan businesses.

“We’re building on the local food movement,” she said in a recent interview.

Lambke said that in the mid-1800s, Somerset County fed more than 100,000 people with its wheat production. “We now face a reality where less than 1 percent of Maine’s wheat demand is actually grown in Maine.”

Lambke said that along with hundreds of baking enthusiasts, 16 farmers attended last year’s two-day conference, and all expressed a desire to grow organic grain for local food production. Some of the grant funds will be used for soil preparation and wheat seed trials for those interested farmers.

The grant funds also will be used for workshops this winter, to provide assistance with seed and soil amendments, to provide farmer scholarships to the 2009 conference in July and to collaborate with other organizations that are working to improve the availability of grains grown in Maine, Lambke said.

The jail purchase, which was approved last week by the Somerset County commissioners, will trigger a major renovation, including construction of the gristmill in the jail’s former cafeteria, Lambke said. The jail’s commercial kitchen will become a cafe and mill store. Former cell quarters could be rented to artists as residential, classroom and retail spaces with the help of the Wesserunsett Arts Council, with support from the Maine Crafts Association.

“I have already been approached by an interested radio station, quilter, potters, painters, art supply retailer and outdoor theater performers who are interested in utilizing jail space,” she said.

Lambke plans to invest $260,000 in building improvements to the 1887 jail, including replacement of windows, installation of a sprinkler system to meet fire codes, and conversion of the oil furnace to burn wood pellets.

She has partnered with Michael Scholz, an artisan brick-oven baker, who grows and mills his own heritage variety of wheat for commercial bread baking.

According to Lambke’s business plan, the gristmill “will foster relationships with local organic farmers in central Maine to increase the production of wheat, oats and other small grains for milling into flour, cereals, and value added products using modern stone milling equipment.”

Lambke’s plan with the venture is to:

— Create a successful economic enterprise in Skowhegan by capitalizing on marketplace voids.

— Create infrastructure critical to central Maine’s revival of a small grain economy.

— Produce high-quality nutritious flour, bread and cereals.

— Rehabilitate and reuse a viable building in the heart of the downtown, creating a pleasurable aesthetic, economic revitalization and reduced urban sprawl.

— Preserve green space, produce agricultural products that lend themselves to quality food marketing, enhance livable communities and Skowhegan’s sense of place.

— Create 12 new jobs in the first year of operation.

Lambke said, “A gristmill facility to store, clean and process grain would fill a void for central Maine farmers, bakers and food consumers. Trucking grain from the West currently drives up the cost of grain and products made with grain. By establishing the Skowhegan Grist Mill, Michael and I will revive the sustainable grain production known to Maine a century ago.”

The Kneading Conference is promoted by the Bakers, Artisans, and Growers Cooperative, a nonprofit organization fiscally sponsored by Heart of Maine RC&D. More information about growing local grains or the Kneading Conference may be found at www.kneadingconference.com.

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