September 20, 2017
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A grain revolution is rising in Skowhegan

By Sarah Walker Caron, BDN Senior Editor

In Aroostook County, farmer Jake Dyer is going with the grain.

At Benedicta Grain Co., Dyer has his eye on the future, trying to look ahead to the next five to 10 years to anticipate the market demand for his core crop: Maine grains.

“As a grower, one of the major challenges in Maine right now is the quality of seed,” says Dyer. “If we are happy with [a] variety, we can at least clean some seed and have it on our farm. We can sort of control our supply that way.”

In Portland, baker Alison Pray, owner of Standard Baking Co., still has a hard time believing her bakery is using grain from Maine. Pray is offering a half dozen breads, including two German ryes, made with local grain. The dense, seeded breads are growing in popularity.

When she started her bakery two decades ago, she recalls, this opportunity “wasn’t even on the horizon.”

“We are thrilled. We are so excited. This is what inspires all of our innovation and excitement about developing new breads and pastries,” said Pray. “It opens a lot of doors for us.”

It could be said the grain business in Maine has been freed. Since the hub of the state’s grain movement is a concrete-and-granite former jailhouse in Skowhegan, where the din of prisoners has been replaced by the roar of heavy machinery, the imagery is accurate.

Reinvigorating the grain economy

The Somerset Grist Mill opened its doors in Skowhegan in September 2012, three years after owner Amber Lambke and her business partner, Michael Scholz, purchased the 14,000-square-foot building. Since then, the business has been partnering with grain producers across Maine to provide flours and other grains for bakeries, grocers and more under the Maine Grains name.

Credited with reinvigorating grain production in Maine, Maine Grains in just a few years has had a vast influence on the state’s food economy.

Lambke, founder of Maine Grains, acts as a facilitator between farmers like Dyer and bakers like Pray to determine needs and monitor quality and production.

Take oats, for example, which were being processed on a recent Monday at the grist mill. With more uses than just baking, oats and their production have become important to Maine Grains.

“Oats keep us very busy and have been very, very popular,” says Lambke.

In Brewer, Maine Grains rolled oats are sold from a bulk bin at Tiller & Rye.

The oats are carefully cleaned and processed, with cracked oats being sold separately from the more common rolled oats. Anything deemed too chaffy in the process is sold as animal feed.

The goal? To find uses for all parts of the grains that come in.

“We can make those byproducts available very affordably to those who need that feed,” says Lambke.

Maine Grains has seen production increase each year since commencing operations. In 2014, they processed 250 tons of product, and are on track to double that this year. But now they are faced with a new challenge: obtaining enough grains to continue growing.

“There’s not enough certified organic grain grown in Maine to keep our facility in operation all year. We also buy from conventional [growers who don’t use chemicals],” says Lambke. “Our operation really helps drive that increased production in organic grains.”

She’s looking to new growers to help fill the need.

Lambke says that bakeries such as Standard Baking and Scratch, both in Portland, have taken an early stance on baking with local grains — support that has been invaluable to the relatively young grain company.

Pray talks about wanting in on the ground floor of Maine-grown grains.

“We couldn’t wait,” says Pray. “We were in touch with her probably a year before they were up and going.”

To Pray, revitalizing the local grain economy is a key link in the local food chain. Unlike chefs, bakers don’t have endless choices when it comes to sourcing local ingredients.

“We thought it would close the loop for local grains so that farmers would now be able to grow grains and have them milled locally,” says Pray. “It would solve the infrastructure problem of farmers growing grains and sending them out to be milled.”

Dyer has been selling grain to Lambke and Maine Grains since the mill opened.

“In the fall of 2012, we planted a crop of winter rye,” says Dyer. Since then, the farm has expanded its grain production to include black hulled japanese buckwheat, winter rye, spelt and barley. This season, it is adding field peas, which will be dried, and soybeans to the rotation.

Last October, Benedicta Grain Co. purchased a grain cleaning machine so it could both clean the grains before taking them to market and also potentially clean seeds for future production, tackling the problem of seed availability and finding quality seeds head-on.

Moreover, it also ensures that when Benedicta’s products go to market, it isn’t surprised by the returns. Dyer says that taking dirty grains to market is a problem for both buyers and sellers — buyers don’t have the capacity to clean grains and sellers lose money on the sale since the refuse reduces the price they fetch.

“We bought it for quality control on our end. We basically just clean our product before it goes to market,” says Dyer. “It was a good investment.”

Quality is important for the end product as well. For bakers including Pray, there are challenges in baking with local flour versus tested commercial counterparts.

“You are buying from a variety of small farms from farmers not experienced in growing grain,” says Pray. “Sometimes the dough behaves different,” which could throw off a recipe. “So many factors are involved.”

Yet these concerns pale against the opportunities presented by local grain. Pray, for example, can experiment with new bread and pastry recipes, many now based on what Lambke can source. (Right now that’s heirloom corn.)

Lambke says she’s now looking into ancient grains, such as emmer and red fife, as a potential next step for the burgeoning grain business.

“This area was a huge grain-producing area for a long time,” says Lambke.

She’s hoping it will be again soon. In the meantime, the Somerset Grist Mill is also bringing together the community — a big change from its former use, in which its inhabitants had earned some time away.

“I’ve been very, very impressed how the change of use and energy has become a magnet for the community,” says Lambke. “It’s fascinating.”

Sarah Walker Caron is the BDN’s senior features editor. She’s also co-author of “Grains as Mains: Modern Recipes Using Ancient Grains.” BDN writer Kathleen Pierce contributed to this report.

 


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