The University of Maine’s sustainable agriculture program, headed by Ellen Mallory, will share $1.3 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture grant money with the University of Vermont for research into local organic bread wheat production.
“To hear the USDA talking about local production is a welcome thing,” Mallory said Friday.
Kathleen Merrigan, deputy U.S. secretary of agriculture, presented the $1,320,378 grant in Portland. It’s one of the largest of 19 announced nationwide.
Merrigan said the organic wheat market represents a significant economic opportunity for Maine’s farmers.
Mallory explained that a recent trip by a group of Maine farmers, millers and bakers to Quebec was eye-opening and reaffirmed that a major wheat industry is possible in Maine.
“They are raising more than 300,000 acres of wheat in Quebec,” Mallory said. “One mill we visited was sourcing from 25,000 acres of wheat when it only had 500 acres just five years ago.”
Mallory said the research that the two state universities will pair up on includes determining which of 10 wheat varieties will do well in Maine’s climate and grow organically.
Research also will be conducted into fertility, disease and management, as well as developing tools for farmers such as product guides and an online evaluation system.
“Is Maine as well situated as Kansas and Nebraska for growing wheat? No,” Mallory said. “The issue here is that there is a large demand in Maine for local grain.” Mallory said 10 researchers at the two universities will be working on the project.
Merrigan’s announcement was made at the Borealis Breads bakery in Portland, where proprietor Jim Amaral uses locally produced organic wheat.
“That’s some good bread by the way,” Merrigan said. “The grant will help in the entire organic wheat circle: Grow it here, mill it here, bake it here and eat it here.”
She said that wheat grown for bread production meets a higher standard than wheat grown for other foods.
According to USDA, U.S. organic production has more than doubled since the late 1990s, but the consumer market has grown even faster. Organic food sales have more than quintupled, increasing from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $24.6 billion in 2008. More than two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy organic products at least occasion-ally, and 28 percent buy organic products weekly.
“This grant is not just for in-the-lab research,” Merrigan said. “It is for action right in the communities.”
She said organic agriculture is one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. agriculture and that USDA and Congress, through the 2008 Farm Bill, are addressing critical organic agriculture issues through the integration of research, education and extension projects.
More than $19 million in grants were awarded to universities across the country.
“These grants are an important part of USDA’s new ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative, which will help develop local and regional food systems and spur economic opportunity by assisting organic producers with new production and marketing practices to meet rising consumer demand,” Merrigan said.
She said U.S. producers are turning to certified organic farming systems as a potential way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, capture high-value markets and premium prices, and boost farm income.
Research at USDA increasingly focuses on the science that supports development of sustainable practices in agriculture and forestry, including organic farming, to both reduce negative impacts on the environment and keep U.S. farmers competitive.