As artisan and organic food goes mainstream, companies making beer, bread, granola and other such products are struggling to find enough of one of their core ingredients — high quality grains.
Stonyfield, Clif Bar, General Mills and other companies are importing record amounts of organic grains, and they’ve come together to urge Aroostook County farmers to grow more organic and non-genetically modified corn, soybeans, barley, oat, rye or wheat.
“You’re going to have an easy time marketing grain,” said Sam Raser, a procurement manager with Grain Millers, during an organic grains conference sponsored by a consortium of food companies last week in Presque Isle.
“It’s a pain in the neck to bring things in from overseas,” said analyst Kellee James, founder of the data firm Mercaris.
Many potato farmers already are using grains in rotating fields, but with lots of fallow land available, Aroostook farmers could start growing more to sell for food, beverages and livestock feed. And they could benefit from price premiums if they convert to organic, according to conference speakers.
But it’s still challenging growing great grains and meeting the expectations of everyone from city bakeries to big granola manufacturers selling at Hannaford and Wal-Mart.
“We are fussy,” Raser said of Grain Millers, the world’s largest organic oatmeal maker. The Minnesota-based company processes conventional and organically grown grains for General Mills, Nature’s Path, Clif Bar, Cascadian Farm and Kashi, and has fairly specific standards for size and moisture.
“When you’re making oatmeal, you want a big plump oat to smoosh,” Raser said. “If you have thin kernels, they just kind of go into the feed bin” for livestock. The less desirable feed grain also fetches a less desirable price for farmers.
Farmers growing grain have to scale a learning curve — meeting quality, managing storage and cleaning, plus potentially converting the farm to organic in a three-year process.
“The prices for organic grain are great, but the specifications often require value-added steps,” said Matt Williams, co-owner of Aurora Mills, a Linneus-based organic farm and processor supplying wheat, oats and other grains to Borealis Breads, Grandy Oats Granola and dozens of small grocers.
Aroostook County’s fallow farmland includes almost 19,000 acres in Presque Isle, Easton, Fort Fairfield and Caribou alone, according to University of Maine Presque Isle researchers. Those lands are “good enough” for organic grains or conventional food-grade grains, said Williams, a former University of Maine Extension crop specialist. “Our biggest challenge is getting more land in production. It’s been the challenge from day one.”
And while it may be easier than ever for Maine farmers to sell their crops through local and regional markets, with grains “there’s a knowledge infrastructure that needs to improve, as well as the scale of the physical infrastructure,” said Amber Lambke, president of Maine Grains, a mill in Skowhegan.
“We saw some issues at the mill last winter. Well-intentioned farmers, knowing that grain had to go into storage dry, had used propane driers and sent grain into tanks,” Lambke said. “Unbeknownst to us until the product got milled and sent to bakers, the grain had been heated too much. It heated up the protein in the wheat and made terrible bread.”
Overall, she said, “We’ve got farmers right now that are kind of all over the map.”
Along with Aurora Mills, other area farms have long been growing grains for food. Bouchard Family Farms in Fort Kent has grown buckwheat for ploye mix products since the 1980s (although buckwheat is technically a fruit seed, not a grain).
For almost 10 years, Marquis Farm in Van Buren has grown a mix of conventional and organic potatoes for grocery stores and oats and barley for the livestock feed market.
“Our goal is to sell food-grade grain,” said Wayne Marquis. “It pays a premium.”
Another local producer, selling to food and feed markets, is Benedicta Grains, an organic farm growing barley, buckwheat, rye, spelt and soybeans.
The farm is co-owned by Jake Dyer, who grew up in Sherman and worked in University of Maine agricultural research stations before partnering with his father-in-law Andrew Qualey to convert his conventional potato farm to organic grains. Dyer also is working in a new job as an alternative crop specialist with the Maine Potato Board, tasked with helping potato farmers diversify in a changing market, and he thinks grains and a myriad of other crops offer good opportunities.
The movement to local and organic food has “been around long enough that we know it’s here to stay,” Dyer said. “We just need to take it one step at a time and work on the logistics.”