ORONO, Maine — The field located beside the Irving convenience store on Stillwater Avenue contains a variety of grains that were planted and are being analyzed by the University of Maine’s sustainable agriculture program.
The goal of the program is to study the winter rye, red fife wheat, triticale — a cross between wheat and rye — and other grains in order to increase local, organic bread-grain production, Ellen Mallory, who heads the program, said recently while walking through the grain field.
The research also will help Bangor native Alex Bennett, who is developing a drinking straw made from the stalks of the grain plants he calls Straw Straws. He is selling straws grown and harvested in Germany and is preparing for his first Maine harvest.
“What I’m especially interested in is the size of the stalk, the length between the nodes and the diameter,” Bennett said of the fields of test grains planted by Irving and at Rogers Farm Forage and Crop Research Facility on Bennoch Road in Stillwater.
Mallory said that UMaine researchers already are studying 10 varieties of wheat and other grains to see how they handle the Maine climate, so adding a few extra data points for Bennett was easy to accomplish — especially because he’s looking to change the discarded straw into a “value added product.”
“We can take some data from this, and that can be used in other applications,” Mallory said. “We’re [already] studying the seeds, nitrogen rates, which species — wheat, barley or rye — produce the longest stem. There is a lot to learn.”
There is a significant economic opportunity for Maine’s farmers with the increase in popularity of local, organically grown grains for bread products, in distilling and with craft malting, Mallory said.
Because grain straw “grow like a collapsible telescope,” the byproduct also should make a good drinking straw, she said.
Bennett, a 2004 Bangor High School graduate, was serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Germany when his mother gave him a package of drinking straws made of straw. The idea got stuck in his brain, and he partnered with a small German company to bring the straws to Maine.
Rye typically was used to make drinking straws until 1888, when drinking straws made from wax-covered paper were invented. In fact, the German word for drinking straw is “strohhalm,” which also is the word for a stalk of grain.
Bennett really got started on the idea last fall, just before the fields needed to be planted. He still was an active duty Marine, so he contacted UMaine’s sustainable agriculture program and Mallory suggested Charley Henderson, an organic farmer in Kingfield.
“My father picked up 400 pounds of winter rye seed from Paris Farmers Union in Newport and brought it to Charley,” Bennett, a student at Suffolk University in Boston, said. “He tilled the fields twice and seeded the field in mid-September. He’s going to harvest the top, and I’m going to use the straw.”
Mallory also put Bennett in touch with Rusted Rooster Farm owner Sean O’Donnell, a farmer who organically grows crops certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. O’Donnell also is working on producing seed of improved red fife wheat in collaboration with UMaine and Cornell University.
“O’Donnell received a grant to grow this heritage seed from the 1880s from Cornell University,” Bennett said. “I will be working with Sean to harvest the stalk. I will then transport these straws to Kingfield, where I have space to cut, naturally cure and package them into our finished product.”
The organic Straw Straws are packaged in biodegradable cellophane and recycled cardboard and are selling for $8 for 40. Venasfizzhouse.com in Portland is one Maine company that has agreed to sell them.
The UMaine data will provide the Straw Straws developer with the information he needs to decide what grain to plant this fall for his second harvest next year.
“What this will do is give me more knowledge about the best way to adapt the production methods to the Maine climate,” Bennett said. “What this will allow me to do is produce a strong drinking straw that is not made out of plastic.”