In 2009, with the help of grants, loans and crowdfunding, Amber Lambke bought the old Somerset County jail in Skowhegan for $65,000.
Today, the restored jail is home to the Somerset Grist Mill, which produces stone-milled flour and rolled oats and distributes them across Maine as far south as New York City. It’s also home to a community radio station, a yarn shop and a cafe that serves local foods.
The grist mill hosts a farmers’ market every week that has spurred collaboration among local farmers, and the business uses locally grown grains from area growers. At the same time as the Somerset Grist Mill has created a market for locally grown grains, this access to locally grown grains has allowed, and inspired, others to start businesses — such as Bigelow Brewing Co. in Skowhegan, which purchases its grains from the grist mill, and The Maine Barkery, also in Skowhegan, which uses the locally produced grains to create all-natural dog treats.
“This building has created permission for people in the community that have ideas to also take risks alongside me to start new businesses,” Lambke says in the film “Maineland: A town looks to its past to save its future.” Released in October 2016, the film by director Stephen Parkhurst profiles Lambke and shows the impact of the Somerset Grist Mill on Skowhegan.
Even when one considers its ripple effects on other Maine businesses, a single grist mill isn’t the answer to rural Maine’s woes. Indeed, there is no single answer to changing the trajectory of population and economic stagnation in Maine’s rural areas. And the opening of a grist mill, a microbrewery and a new downtown retail business doesn’t replace the jobs lost by the closure of a paper mill.
But put together the can-do attitudes of Lambke and the entrepreneurs who have taken risks because Lambke took a risk, and the can-do attitudes of others throughout rural Maine who act on their own ideas, and you have the seeds of progress.
“Is the key resource that we need the belief that it is possible?” asked Leah Cook, who, with her sister, has grown Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative into a business with more than $2 million in sales of Maine-grown foods each year.
Cook spoke Friday at the Rural Maine’s Next Economy conference in Bangor, which celebrated examples of people in rural Maine running businesses and mobilizing their communities.
Some of the major takeaways?
Part of the challenge is to overcome the attitude of pessimism that can dominate conversations about the outlook for rural Maine. “The biggest problem in isolated, rural communities is that they don’t have a sense of positive direction,” said Paul Costello, whose organization, the Vermont Council on Rural Development, has worked with rural communities across the Green Mountain State on devising their own, home-grown turnaround strategies.
Another challenge is overcoming the prevailing spirit of individualism in rural Maine. If multiple farmers come together, for example, they have a better chance at supporting a processing plant for the poultry they raise. If customers make a commitment to their local farmers, they can contribute to the viability of agriculture in their communities.
“What makes us Mainers is our collectivism,” said Vaughan Woodruff who founded Insource Renewables, which installs and services solar panels and heat pump systems, in Pittsfield, his hometown.
“What if everyone in Maine chose to spend $10 a week on a jar of [locally grown and locally made] sauerkraut?” asked Carly DelSignore of Tide Mill Farm in Edmunds during a session on agriculture. “It would help for people to take a personal investment in making that choice to buy Maine food.”
There’s no single answer to turning around rural Maine, just as there won’t be one big industry to save it. But it will require something from everybody.