Tag Archives: Feeding Maine

Up in the County: From Spuds to Grains

By Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Photographs by Mark Yaggie

Up in Maine’s Aroostook County, farming is generational, part of the regional DNA: families proudly trace links to the land that go back sometimes for a century or more. Take Aurora Mills and Farm in tiny Linneus (population just under 1,000), not far from the Houlton county seat. At Aurora, the pitchfork is held high by veteran farmers Matt and Linda Williams, capably supported by their 30-something daughter, Sara, and her husband Marcus Flewelling. Marcus and Sara’s baby, Annabelle, represents the next generation. When I visited, Annabelle was fast asleep in a plastic baby carrier nestled next to her grandfather’s feet as he carefully maneuvered a rattling combine harvester through a sun-bleached field of ripening late summer oats, part of the 200 acres the Williamses have under grains.

The Williamses also harvest and mill wheat (including an experimental patch of hard durum, for pasta), emmer, spelt, and rye, all of it human-food grade, and most of it sold in Maine where a burgeoning market of brewers, bakers, chefs, granola producers, and home consumers demand whole grains, preferably organic and grown in-state. (Aurora’s organic oats do travel as far as Boston University’s mess halls, through Grandy Oats’ distribution networks.)

The Williams family are not the only grain farmers in The County. In Benedicta, an unorganized township on the outskirts of Baxter State Park, Andrew Qualey’s forebears have farmed potatoes since they arrived from Ireland in the 1840s. And potatoes remain a quintessential harvest on Qualey’s broad fields that slope westward to the brooding silhouette of Mount Katahdin. But today, partnering with his son-in-law Jake Dyer, Qualey has shifted to more valuable organically-farmed grains, as well as field peas, soybeans and Japanese black buckwheat.

Qualey and Dyer began their grain experiments  in 2008. Last summer’s drought ironically created near-perfect grain harvest conditions. The yield was light but the quality was high, Qualey said: “In general, we’re shooting for quality, not quantity.”

When I asked why the conversion, he laughed. “Our generation,” Qualey said, “ate potato chips. His generation”—he pointed to Jeff Dec, a lean, young baker who with his wife operates Brazen Baking in Camden and had accompanied me to The County—“they don’t eat chips anymore.”

I got the point. National potato consumption has declined in recent decades, although potatoes remain the number one vegetable consumed by Americans. For this and other reasons, potatoes are no longer the unchallenged mainstay of The County’s wealth. While no one would abandon the crop entirely, it’s time to look at productive alternatives, such as organic grains. But potatoes will always be important, admits Dyer, who works for the Potato Board developing crops for diversifying Aroostook potato farms.

Another advance in the Aroostook grain game is taking place in Mapleton, just west of Presque Isle, where the Buck brothers, Jake, Josh, and Jaret, are pioneering their Maine Malt House enterprise, pro- cessing barley into high-quality malt for the scores of sprightly breweries mushrooming in Maine. Malting is a complicated process that makes you wonder how beer was invented. First, grain is steeped in water to soak, then spread in a thick layer to germinate: the

germination is stopped by heating and drying  in a kiln. Enzymatic activity increases the sugar in the grain, lending sweetness to the beer and giving the yeast something to feed on.

Not every brewery uses local malts, but a growing number tout Maine-grown ingredients. Vaunted Allagash, Oxbow, and Rising Tide are among a good 20 breweries setting the pace for using Maine-grown grains, malts, and hops. Allagash brewmaster Jason Perkins is especially proud of “16 Counties,” a creamy, flavorful ale that boasts entirely Maine ingredients, including Maine-grown organic hops. Oxbow uses the Maine Malt House product in its forthcoming “Domestic” farmhouse IPA, and has a 100% local beer spontaneously fermenting for two-plus years underway, made of all Buck Farm, Maine Grains and Alna Hops-sourced ingredients.

From Left to Right. Katahdin rises above fields of oats at Benedicta Grain Co. In 1987, as the town’s population dipped to around 200 residents, Benedicta surrendered its plantation status and became an unorganized township.

Spelt in the auger. Spelt is an ancient wheat that is naturally lower in gluten.

Sara Williams Flewelling behind the wheel of a swather, cutting buckwheat into windrows so the grain can dry down in the field prior to being picked up for processing.

 Sara, Marcus, and baby Annabelle in a field of Japanese buckwheat. Aurora is working with Takahiro Sato, chef/owner of Yosaku in Portland, to develop a soba noodle made with Maine buckwheat. The noodles will be available in his restaurant this summer.

But while Oxbow is experimenting with Maine malts and grains, the brewery still sources most of its malt from France and Germany. “We’re working towards using more and more Maine grains—and malts,” Tim Adams, co-founder and head brewer at Oxbow, told me—a statement that holds true for many other breweries as well.

About a quarter of the Bucks’ 1,000 acres is planted to barley; the next step will be hop vines, another critical element in beer-making. “The potato market is mature,” Jake Buck explained as we toured the malt house. Like Qualey and Dyer, the Buck brothers are diversifying from total reliance on potatoes.  “We count on working with local farmers to spread the risks around,” Jake said. But they could do a lot more, he admitted. Right now, despite producing  240 tons of malt annually, they can’t keep up with in-state demand. And with just two maltsters in Maine (the Bucks’ place in Mapleton and Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls), there’s room to grow.

Coincidentally, on the day I watched Matt Williams harvest oats, I caught up with Amaral, there at Aurora to take pictures for his new cookbook celebrating 25 years of Borealis. “When you’re making bread, you’re basically working with just four ingredients,” Amaral told me, “flour, water, yeast and salt. So it’s important to understand where each of these is coming from.”

As far as consistency, moisture in the grain is a key factor. Wheat, for instance, harvested at 18% moisture, must be dried down to 12 to 14% for safe storage. Otherwise, the grain starts to sprout, leading to the development of amylase, an enzyme that is undesirable, especially for baking. Grain high in amylase produces sticky bread; too low, on the other hand, and the bread will be unacceptably dry. “Variations in protein levels are just the nature of small-scale milling,” says Jim Amaral, who established Borealis Breads (then known as Bodacious) back in 1993. Larger-scale millers can blend various flours to a steady consistency to satisfy bakers’ needs, but the scale of grain growing in Maine, he said, has not yet arrived at that point.

Black Crow Bakery in Litchfield, turning out some of the most stunning bread in Maine over the last 25 years, uses some Maine grains but consistency crops up in any conversation with baker Mark Mickalide. Mickalide is unusual because he himself grinds the flours he uses. The biggest problem is what he calls bitterness in Maine-grown grains: “It doesn’t ripen to a real strong sweetness,” he said, adding that to get the flavor he wants, he blends, in equal quantities, Maine-grown grains with sweeter wheat from the High Plains and ordinary unbleached white flour.

Blending, then, is an issue of capacity. Yes, Maine could grow a lot more grain to supply the needs of both brewers and bakers—and it might well lead to greater possibilities for millers to blend flours. But reaching that capacity is not a quick process, especially not for organic grains, which are what bakers require.

Anyone involved in this revival of Maine grain growing agrees the movement began with Aurora’s modest Matt Williams, in symbiotic relationship  with Borealis’s Jim Amaral. Amaral first got Williams involved in grains on a commercial scale. In the late 1990s with Borealis Bread a success, Amaral decided to enhance his line with a Maine-grown product.

“I kept asking, why aren’t we growing wheat in Maine?” Amaral recalled. Williams, who was then the Aroostook County Extension Service specialist in small grains, had been experimenting with grains in rotation on his Linneus farm. As Amaral pushed, Williams planted, first, a crop of hard red winter wheat harvested in 1998. With no milling capacity in Maine, the grain was trucked across the border to New Brunswick. That continued until the border crossing became difficult after September 2001, at which point Williams added a grist mill to his grain operation.

Amaral now uses Aurora wheat for all his sourdough starters, but he is particularly proud of “Aroostook,” a grainy loaf made 100% from Maine grains, mostly wheat, and mostly from Aurora.

Nor can you talk about grain in Maine without mentioning Amber Lambke and her vision of a “re- generative economy” for Central Maine. In 2012, she co-established the Maine Grains mill in Skowhegan in the old Somerset County jail, where Qualey Farms in Benedicta is among some 24 growers sending their grains in for processing. Maine has just two commercial stone grist mills, in Skowhegan and the one at Aurora. For a decade, Lambke, with a number of like-minded confederates, organized the annual summer Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. What the Common Ground Country Fair is for Maine’s organic farmers, the Kneading Conference has become for Maine’s grain farmers, brewers and bakers.

From Left to Right. Inspecting hops outside Maine Malt House in Mapleton. As the stalwart potato market continues to mature, young farmers like the Buck brothers are looking for ways to diversify, and Maine’s booming craft beer industry offers new market opportunities.

Jake Buck checks the “chitted” barley on the malting floor at Maine Malt House. The Aroostook County malt house is one of just two malt houses in Maine helping to bring locally-grown grains to Maine brewers.

Sara Williams Flewelling holds a prized French heritage wheat, ‘Rouge De Bordeaux,’ known for its excellent baking quality and superior flavor. Over the past few years Aurora has been restoring the grain seed to marketable quantities and expects to have it available to customers this fall.

Maine bakers like Jim Amaral of Borealis have paved the way for more local grain production. While working with local flour can be less predictable than the standard King Arthur, bakers and eaters are enthusiastic about using Maine grains in breads and baked goods.

The Kneading Conference spurred the Maine Grain Alliance, now headed by Tristan Noyes, another young Aroostook native who, with his brother on the family farm in Woodland, is experimenting with several grains, including Sirvinta, a hard winter wheat from Estonia whose potential has a lot of Maine growers excited.

Noyes is equally enthusiastic about a new project for the Maine Grain Alliance, an 8-month feasibility study to look at creating drying, storing, and sorting facilities in four separate Aroostook County locations. This will take the onus off the shoulders of individual farms and farmers, and incidentally take a lot of the guesswork out of grain production.

Here in Aroostook (as in other parts of rural Maine) local and farm-to-table are not just fancy terms to sprinkle on chic restaurant menus. Local means community and an inter-connected economy. But there is still not enough local grain being grown and milled to serve Maine’s needs. I think of those 18,000 fallow acres up in the County where the climate is so good for grains—cool nights make sweeter wheat—and where taller varieties with better flavor and better baking quality can be grown. “Our biggest challenge is simply getting more land in production,” Matt Williams noted. “And it’s been the challenge from day one.”

Allagash’s Perkins cites a statistic from the University of Maine at Presque Isle—there are 18,000 acres of fallow or idle agricultural lands between Presque Isle and Caribou, all suited to grain cultivation. In fact, Aroostook farmers havegrown grains for a very long time, but almost always in rotation with potatoes (sometimes legumes, too). Such crops are either turned under as green manure or sold as low-value feed for chickens, pigs and cattle. What’s new in recent years is the focus on food-grade (as opposed to feed-grade) grains.

In the last decade or so, Maine has been fortunate to see an explosion of artisanal bread- and beer-crafting. We’ve come a long way since enriched sliced white breads (the Cushman’s and Nissen’s of my Camden childhood) and Haffenreffer and Narragansett fizzy brews. As of last winter, Maine had about 85 craft breweries, members of the Maine Brewers Association, and an estimated 51 craft bakeries, according to the Maine Grain Alliance, producing densely-grained, whole-meal loaves, often from wood-fired ovens, like the superbly nutty rye bread made with Aurora’s rye  by Tim Semler at Tinder Hearth in Brooksville or the variety of breads and pastries at Standard Baking in Portland where, under Alison Pray’s direction in 2016, they used some 47,600 pounds of local wheat, oats,  rye, cornmeal, and spelt, which represents 15% of their total grain use; and the number is climbing annually.

So why aren’t all of Maine’s brewers and bakers using Maine-grown grains? The answer is complex, but it boils down to three factors: 1) capacity, 2) consistency, and 3) price. On that last point, flour from the Skowhegan mill, says Camden baker Jeff Dec, is double the price of King Arthur flour—“and they’re really giving a good price to farmers.” Making grain profitable for farmers is obviously an important piece of the equation, but when bakers and brewers, who operate on similarly slim margins, can get good-quality flour, or malted barley, for half the price, it’s hard to argue with the choice. Still, bakers like Dec, Semler, Pray, and many others acknowledge their customers recognize the value in locally grown grain.

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

PITCH IN to join the MFT community

We say it all the time: Our members make our work possible. MFT members are people who recognize the importance of protecting farmland and helping farmers thrive. They care about the resiliency of Maine’s rural economy, and the sustainability of our environment. They are farmers, future-farmers, business owners, eaters, conservationists, advocates, policymakers, artists, community-builders, foodies, and people who love Maine. They are people like YOU.

“I grew up in Biddeford but would never have imagined that I would be standing here now, ready to open an ice cream shop. We are getting our milk and cream from Harris Farm and trying to source as much as we can from local farms and farmers… As farms are dwindling across the country and the dairy industry is struggling here in Maine, it feels good to find ways to support our community and local farmers.  We joined Maine Farmland Trust because we believe the work they do is vital to preserving the environment for us and for future generations.”

—Jonathan Denton + Jacqui DeFranca || Sweetcream Dairy || Biddeford, Maine

“We support Maine Farmland Trust because, as longtime home gardeners, we believe in the countless health benefits of good local products and the deep value of preserving and restoring farmland in our state. We love the way the Trust is making it possible for a new generation of farmers to get started and sustain farms throughout Maine.

—Gary and Rosie Bensen: Newcastle

“We bought our 100 acres in Arundel in the 1970’s and raised our family on the land here.  Now, we have three-generations living here and working on this land. I have seen this area, and Southern Maine in general, change a lot over the years.  When we moved here, there were 24 commercial farms, then at the lowest point, there were only 4. All of the land I hayed for folks in the past has gone to subdivisions.  The best land here has been developed.” – Stacey Wentworth

“Watching the demise of farmland, especially in Southern Maine and the prime, fertile land in the Saco River basin has been really hard.  As the New School principal, I see our graduates want to farm and yet are daunted with the prospect of finding land. MFT’s work to not only preserve the land but also make it possible for young farmers to get on it is one of the main reasons we have supported MFT for all these years.” –  Marilyn Wentworth

–Stacey + Marilyn Wentworth (pictured with grandchildren) || Neverdun Farm || Arundel, Maine

If you believe in this work, we hope you’ll consider joining our community of members who actively support the future of farming in Maine.  We can’t do it without you, pitch in!

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.

Maine Fare: Finale Feast, Tasting & Storytelling

The  Finale Feast will begin with a casual tasting of small plates that reflect the traditional foodways of Western Maine, using ingredients from local producers and prepared by some of Maine’s finest chefs. Each plate will be paired with a beverage (wine, beer, or hard cider- for those 21 & up). 

After filling our bellies, we’ll move to the Stoneheart Farm lamb barn (lambs included!) to hear food-focused stories told live by a lineup of local friends. 

Meet the chefs:

Corey Dilts, chef at Norway Brewing Company, will be creating egg yolk raviolo, served with Tourmaline Hill Ricotta, six month dry cured Leg of Lamb from Wrinkle in Thyme Farm, maple chive cured duck egg yolk from his own farm, and a beet chive reduction.

Ian Desjardins, a chef from the Penobscot Nation, will be creating a sample plate of fiddleheads, Passamaquoddy maple syrup, cornbread, and smoked Micmac trout.

Shawn Stemp, chef at Ondine Oyster + Wine Bar and Black Trumpet, will be serving wood-fired oysters and accompaniments.

Frank Giglio, chef at Three Lily Provisions cooking school, will be creating a lamb and mushroom ragu, served over acorn polenta.

 

Meet the storytellers:

Lee Dassler. Lee has a background in theater, carpentry and architecture and is the executive director of Western Foothills Land Trust.

Scott Vlaun. Scott is a photographer, homesteader, permaculture designer, dad and the executive director at Center for an Ecology-Based Economy.

Mary Anne Haxton and Marty Elkin. Mary Anne and Marty own A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm in Sumner where they raise sheep and host fiber workshops.

Bonnie Pooley. Bonnie taught at Gould Academy for 35 years, and is actively involved in local conservation and food initiatives, such as Mahoosuc Land Trust and the Alan Day Community Garden.

+ Storytelling will be emceed by MFT’s own Chris Franklin, our farmland protection project manager working in Western Maine!

 

MFT members receive 10% discount on tickets.

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

Check out the other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month!

Maine Fare: Whole Lamb Butchery

Students will learn from and work with butchers Elise Miller and Kirk Pincince from Rosemont Market to breakdown and butcher a whole lamb from Stoneheart Farm. Guests will get hands on cutting experience and will get to take home some of their handy work.

Rosemont Market & Bakery is comprised of six markets in Portland, Yarmouth, and Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Since their start in 2005, Rosemont has become a significant hub for local food, sourcing fresh & delicious products from local farmers and friends whose practices they trust. Through their markets, Rosemont is working within their neighborhoods to instill a deeper, stronger understanding of where food comes from and what it’s really about.

MFT members receive 10% discount on tickets.

 

***ONLINE ticket sales will CLOSE on Thursday, June 21st at 3:30PM. If you would like to reserve a ticket on Friday, please call the MFT office and speak with Kim. 207.338.6575

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

Check out the other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month!

Growing Local Screening at the Springvale Library

Join MFT and Springvale Library for a screening of Growing Local, a film that explores three poignant stories that help us understand the interconnected fates of Maine’s small farms, consumers and the local food movement. Question and answer session will be held with MFT staff members after the film.
Growing Local was directed and produced by Bridget Besaw of Seedlight Pictures.

This screening is free and open to all.

For more information contact: caroline@mainefarmlandtrust.org

Maine Fare: Farmstead Cheesemaking

Gloria Varney at Nezinscot Farm will host a hands-on class that allows students the opportunity to gain skills and understanding of both soft and semi-hard cheeses. We’ll finish the process of making a dry-curd cottage cheese, a versatile cheese that can be eaten fresh or pressed to create a farmers-style cheese. Participants will also prepare goat’s milk  to make a chevre and brie (or camembert). Everyone will leave with a sampling of cheeses to take home.

 ***THIS EVENT IS SOLD OUT***

MFT members receive 10% discount on tickets.

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

Check out the other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month!

Maine Fare: Foraging and Growing Mushrooms

Scott Vlaun, the executive director at the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy in Norway, Maine, will lead a workshop on the basics of the mushroom life cycle, production, and different types of fungi, specifically oyster and shitake mushrooms. Participants will drill, plug and wax their own mushroom log to take home, and learn about log stacking methods, incubation and fruiting. We’ll discuss foraging strategies and etiquette in the Maine woods and learn about some of the easy to identify medicinal and edible mushrooms.

THIS EVENT IS SOLD OUT! 

Make sure to check out our other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month of June!

June 17th: Farmstead Cheesemaking

June 24th: Whole Lamb Butchery

June 30th: Finale Feast, Tasting & Storytelling

 

MFT members receive 10% discount on tickets.

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

Check out the other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month!

Maine Fare: Indigenous Foodways

Karyn Marden (Abenaki descent), Ann Pollard-Ranco (Penobscot and Abenaki) and Alivia Moore (Penobscot) of Gedakina will give an overview of the history of indigenous food systems in Western Maine. The presentation will cover indigenous food system recovery work happening in different parts of the state, including a women-led recovery of traditional agriculture in Starks, and wild rice recovery projects. The presenters will also give an overview of other tribal food systems work happening in Maine and introduce some of the Wabanaki food businesses. Guests will have the opportunity to sample some foods from the tribal community, including a wild rice salad with squash and cranberries, and traditional cornbread. 

MFT members receive 10% discount on tickets.

TICKETS WILL BE AVAILABLE AT THE DOOR. ONLINE TICKET SALES NOW CLOSED. CALL MFT OFFICE FOR QUESTIONS 207.338.6575

Not a member? Join today and receive 10% off your ticket!

Trouble buying your ticket or prefer to do it over the phone? Please call the MFT office (207.338.6575) and ask for Rachel Keidan, or email at rkeidan@mainefarmlandtrust.org

Check out the other Maine Fare events happening throughout the month!

Four farm businesses receive $50K grants from MFT to scale-up to new markets

Kathi Langelier of Herbal Revolution (left) and Kelsey Herrington of Two Farmers Farm (right, photo by Greta Rybus)

MFT has awarded grants to four farms of approximately $50,000 to implement changes in order to scale up their businesses. The farms participated in the 201 track of MFT’s Farming for Wholesale program and spent two years working with business advisors to research and define business plans focused on scaling up for wholesale markets. These implementation grants are competitive and applications undergo an extensive review process by a committee comprised of MFT staff and industry consultants.

The 2018 crop of grantees, all of who received around $50,000, include Tide Mill Creamery in Edmunds, Two Farmers Farm in Scarborough, Herbal Revolution in Union, and Broadturn Farm in Scarborough. The farms will use the grant funds to scale-up infrastructure, equipment, and expand marketing efforts.

Rachel Bell and Nate Horton of Tide Mill Creamery constructed new housing for their herd and made improvements to their pastures, and installed a 100-gallon vat pasteurizer, which will allow them to sell cheese across state lines. Kelsey Herrington and Dominic Pascarelli, of Two Farmers Farm, will implement a new business plan to sell more vegetables in mainstream markets while maintaining a high level of product quality, and quality of life. Kathi Langelier, of Herbal Revolution, created a plan that scales production to meet national demand for her herbal line. She will also invest in the business’ brand, and create new jobs in farm operations, sales, marketing, and production management. Farmers John Bliss and Stacy Brenner of Broadturn Farm are using the funds to cultivate their brand and marketing to create new opportunities within the floral industry. This includes infrastructure that will help them pave the way for the burgeoning local flower market.

This is the second year MFT has offered implementation grants for farms that completed the 201 Farming For Wholesale program. “Access to financing to implement new changes and ideas continues to be a challenge,” said Alex Fouliard, Farming for Wholesale program manager. “MFT is pleased to be able to fill that need and keep momentum moving forward for these farms.”

Let's grow a bright future for farming in Maine, together.