When Eric Theriault’s father, Robert, started potato farming in Drummond, New Brunswick, in the 1970s, it didn’t go well.
He “lost quite a lot of barrels of potatoes” and almost faced bankruptcy, Eric Theriault told farmers at the Maine Grain Conference, held last month at Northern Maine Community College by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Theriault’s father also had grown cereal grains, such as oats, and made money selling seeds to other growers, so he focused on grains. By the 1980s he had a bustling grain seed businesses, with silos, dryers, a processing house and several hundred acres in production.
Eric Theriault now leads eastern Grains Inc. in Drummond, about 35 miles northeast of Van Buren, selling seeds and equipment to farmers growing grains for animal livestock feed or human food, ending up in bread, beer and granola. The farm harvests about 3,000 acres of oats, barley, wheat and soybeans, rotating on a variety of two- to five-year schedules with potatoes, grains, soybeans and clovers.
“The buyers are looking for quality and consistency and specific requirements now,” Theriault said. “It’s really complicated to harvest grain. To be able to focus on quality, you need the proper equipment to harvest at the right time.”
Grains and oilseeds such as soybeans need to be harvested at specific moisture levels, sorted into different sizes, dried and stored until they can be turned into malted barley for beer, oats for granola or wheat for bread.
Growing grains for the human market requires certain equipment — though large equipment isn’t always necessary — and the demand for quality grains, especially for organic grains, is increasing, according to Loic Dewavrin, co-owner of a 1,500-acre organic grain and oilseed farm in Les Cedres, about 40 miles west of Montreal along the Saint Lawrence River.
“Grains can be fragile,” and they each have their own needs for ideal harvest, processing and storage, said Dewavrin, whose farm also has an oil press and a roller mill for white flour.
Dewavrin and his two other brothers transitioned their family farm to organic in the 1990s and have had fairly good success growing a variety of grain crops and a few niche oil seeds and processing them into value-added forms with a mix of equipment.
“Make trials on your farm to select the varieties that are less susceptible to diseases,” Dewavrin advised. “That’s something we do every year with trial plots to make seed. When you grow your own seeds you want to have many varieties.”
They also use a variety of equipment to clean the grains and separate them into sizes, including a rotary cleaner attached to a fan and a gravity table used for smaller quantities.
Over the last several years, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and others have been promoting grains to Maine farmers, including Aroostook County potato growers who already are growing grains as rotation or cover crops but not harvesting them for the human food market.
At the same time, Amber Lambke, president of Maine Grains and executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, has been working to “set up the infrastructure” for building a robust state grain economy with farmers, bakeries and grocers. Maine Grains’ mill in Skowhegan processes wheat, oats, rye, spelt, corn, buckwheat, stone milled flour and rolled oats.
“Over the last three years since we’ve launched our business, our grower pool has doubled every year to about 24 different growers,” Lambke said while attending the conference. “Our ability to source certified organic grains is improving all the time.” This season, Lambke said she’s looking to buy more “heritage” grains — older varieties, such as red winter wheat and spelt — as well as organic and heirloom corn.
Last year, in a collaboration with the cooperative extension, three farms grew spelt, which was milled at Maine Grains and then sold to bakeries around the Northeast. The mill also is making locally malted barley flour, used in baking and chocolate making.
Maine Grains’ mill, housed inside a former jail in Skowhegan, has a good part of the infrastructure needed for turning grains into food, but not of all of it, Lambke said.
“We have infrastructure to be able to receive, move and clean grain,” she said. “We don’t have infrastructure to dry grains. We do need farms to be tooled up and ready to manage moisture, pests and things like that.”
At a minimum, farmers who want to grow grains that could be sold to a mill for human-grade consumption need “to think ahead about drying and long-term storage,” Lambke said. “This is one area that still needs addressing in the field of revitalizing Maine’s grain economy.”