Re-invigorating the Grain Economy in Maine
Maine Grains at the Somerset Grist Mill, Skowhegan, Maine
by Emily du Houx
The bucolic scene of the old gristmill on a river, attached to a water wheel that turns with the flow of a downstream current, is reinvented at the Maine Grains grist mill in Skowhegan, Maine. In a repurposed space that used to be the town jail, grain from local suppliers is ground to flour and rolled to make oats. Electric power drives the mill, so there is no need for a churning water wheel on the outside of the building, or horses that rotate a shaft to power operations like they used to centuries ago. Even so, a sense of history still exists in the ancient processes at work in the building.
“Maine and New England have this rich history of growing lots and lots and lots and lots of grain,” said Amber Lambke, who along with Michael Scholz, runs the gristmill and is heavily involved in other local projects to bolster the Maine grain economy.
She explained that Somerset County was once a major center of grain production in New England. It fed the Union Army during the Civil War, and in the mid-1800s farms in the area produced 240,000 bushels of wheat per year, yielding about 60 pounds of flour per bushel, enough to feed 100,000 people. Thirteen fully operational gristmills used to grind wheat to flour in the Skowhegan area alone, and in northern New England, at least 10,000 mills once churned.
In the past, almost every town had a gristmill. Local farmers would bring their batch of wheat berries to the mill for grinding to flour. The miller would take his “toll,” or fee in the form of some flour, and the farmer would leave with his batch of grains processed and ready for baking. Without the mill and the miller, there was no flour.
The once-robust grain economy in Maine dwindled when transportation systems in the form of railroads brought cheap crops in from the Midwest, where the topsoil is richer and the growing seasons are longer, so that now less than one percent of the wheat consumed in Maine is grown in the state. The last grist mill in Skowhegan closed in the fifties, and flour production in the area all but came to a complete stand-still. Knowledge of local milling, along with the wheat varieties particular to Maine’s climate and farming patterns, were abandoned but not completely lost.
Now, rising transportation costs, the potential instability of large farm monocultures, especially in the face of climate change, and increasing suspicions about the nutritional quality of the product that many mega-farms produce, is leading to a low-key revolution in the northeast and elsewhere.
“It’s very exciting to be part of it all,” said Amber. Demand for local grains is on the rise, partially due to their satisfying flavor and texture, partially to their touted nutritional value, and partially to the public’s desire to support local economies.
Old mill processes produced flour from the entire wheat berry instead of just part of it, maintaining the oils and nutrients found in the germ. As these methods gave way to machines with steel grinding mechanisms and industrial processes that stripped the germ and the bran from the berry, only the starchy endosperm was left in the final product. This super-refined flour has a longer shelf-life and is great for baking edibles that are delicious to the eye as well as being fluffy and light on the tongue, but it lack the nutrients and oils in stone-ground flour.
In comparison to their more processed counterparts, locally produced and milled grains are still more pricey and labor-intensive, especially if they are organic, and the flour produced from small-batch grains is also less consistent, but many bakers and foodies don’t necessarily see this as a problem. There’s a learning curve when first using lower-yield local grains, but it’s not an impossible material to master. Borealis Breads, a company at the forefront of the local grains movement, has been using local wheat for over a decade; they believe this essential ingredient greatly increases the quality of their baked goods. King Arthur Flour also uses locally sourced grain. Maine Grains has been mentioned specifically by national news sources as being an unlikely hub for the larger movement.
When Amber moved to central Maine from the coast she noticed an interest in local foods but a lack of activity in local grain production. “Grain was missing from the local food discussion,” she said. “From my standpoint [the grist mill] was a unique idea that highlighted local talent, which is exactly what these little communities are going to need. We’re going to need to figure out what are the local strengths to build businesses, to build events, to build brand really.”
Amber is a speech pathologist by training but moved to Skowhegan when her husband, a doctor, got a job in the area. “I was sort of shocked and frustrated when I moved here, that there were so many talented people and yet everybody just complained about this place, bemoaned it. And nobody was putting their talents behind anything to make it better. That was frustrating,” she said, as she described her unlikely path from being a speech pathologist to a champion of the local grains movement.
“[Michael Scholz and I] knew each other from going to summer camp in the area years ago, in the college years, so I knew he had come back to the area, and that he had become a baker,” she said. “He too married a family physician who practices in Waterville and became the primary caregiver of his kids, and I had my kids, so we had time to plan this thing together and launch it together.” Amber has never been a professional baker or owned a business, but she manages to juggle her various responsibilities with impressive ease.
The gristmill came out of a series of projects that started with the Kneading Conference, which Michael and Amber organized. In July of 2007, professional bakers, hobbyists, millers, wheat researchers and breeders, farmers and chefs came together with the goal of developing a local regional grain infrastructure. Since its inception, it has grown and become vastly successful and is receiving national attention.
After an increasingly successful three years, the conference moved from a community church to the oldest continuously operating fairgrounds in the country, downtown across from Hannaford’s and WalMart. The conference emphasizes preservation of the natural landscape of the state, sustainable yet profitable farming, and revitalization of the local grain economy.
Last summer, two-hundred-fifty people related to the local grain industry participated in the two-day conference, which included presentations, panel discussions and workshops on topics that ranged from milling acorn flour to finding seeds and manuals for farming “lost grains,” building wood-fired clay brick ovens, dealing with the high cost of East-coast farm equipment, and refurbishing aging harvest machinery.
In 2011, the Kneading Conference gained non-profit status as the Maine Grain Alliance, and it continues to strengthen ties between small, for-profit businesses in order to fill the needs that no single business can meet alone. Their stated mission is to “preserve and promote grain traditions, from the earth to the hearth.” In 2011 they purchased a portable wood-fired oven for workshops and helped to create the first sister kneading conference, at Washington State University in Mount Vernon, Washington. In the following year they assisted with the renovation of a commercial kitchen, which now hosts year-round educational baking workshops.
This was all before the gristmill, though it didn’t take long for the Amber and Michael and the rest of the Maine Grain Alliance team to realize that if the local grain economy was to keep growing, they would need their very own place to grind locally grown grains.
“We scoured the East Coast to find a miller who was willing to relocate to Maine and run a mill, but had no success,” Amber said. That’s when she and Michael realized they would have to run the operation themselves. Amber dove in and took a class in milling in Kansas and then learned everything else, as she said, “absolutely on the fly.”
The Maine Grain Alliance raised money to purchase a 14,000-square-foot space that used to be the old jail in downtown Skowhegan. Originally built in the 1890s and renovated in 1984, it was vacated when a new jail opened in Madison. The building had to be modified to some extent. Pipes with levers for opening and closing slide gates to control the flow of grain were added; a suction system to take newly arrived wheat and oat seeds up three floors had to be put in, and a dust collection system was devised. Now wheat moves up and down the building through a calculated system of pipes, and every morning, depending on the mill operations planned for that day, a member of the Maine Grains team manually pulls wooden levers which dangle from the ceiling and are attached to sliding gate doors in the pipe system to control where wheat or oats will tumble. “It has to be done by hand,” said Amber. “Most modern mills have an electronic system that automatically controls the flow of grain,” she said, explaining that the Skowhegan mill is a combination of old and new processes and technologies.
Amber went all the way down to a farm in Rhode Island to get a 1930s Clipper cleaner, an important piece of milling equipment, partially for the love of antiques and partially because of the cost difference between a brand new machine, which could run around $40,000, over $36,000 more than the model she found. “It was in great shape, and much cheaper than a new one,” she said.
They modified the machine by adding piping and a metal cage to bring it up to current safety regulations, and they were able to find a company in Illinois that still makes screens and parts as well as manuals for the machine.
The process of milling takes some expertise, which Amber developed over time through experience and observation. Milling flour is a process of removing the unwanted parts of the grain and grinding the rest into an edible powder. At the Somerset Grist Mill grain is released through a system of pipes and tumbles through a hopper to an Ostte Roller, which comes all the way from Austria and has a four-foot-diameter horizontally oriented millstone. This size stone isn’t made in America anymore. Meadow’s Mill in South Carolina specialize in smaller, vertically oriented stones, but they’re one of the few in the country that still produce grains for gristmills. Amber explained, “[This type of stone] is what you used to see in water mills, and it gives the flour a nice fine texture because it has a longer surface area for the grains to travel across.” A wheel controls the coarseness of the flour, as a lever raises or lowers the runner stone closer or farther from the stationary bed stone. The closer together the two stones, the finer the grain produced.
Between the hopper and the roller, there are a lot of variables to take into account. For instance, in conditions of low humidity, the feed rate can be increased and a fine flour will still be produced, but as heat and humidity rises, the feed rate needs to be slowed in order to get that same level of refinement. The temperature of the flour needs to stay around body temperature, not warmer, so its temperature is taken periodically with a heat gun. Amber says the process is “very much an art.”
The Somerset Grist Mill opened in 2012, after three years of preparation, processing their first 30 tons of wheat from Aroostook Country and then continuing to produce around 150 tons of milled wheat and oats in their first year.
“Maine is lucky enough to have Aroostook Country, which is still wide open with farm land,” Amber said. “Many of those farms have grown grains straight through. I’m working with third generation grain farmers from Aroostook—most of their market was in Canada until markets in Maine opened up.”
Production at the mill has increased to 250 tons, 150 tons of which is wheat. They produce a small amount of rye, about 12 tons, and 100 tons of oats—that’s three tons of rolled and cracked oats every other week. Most of the grains still come from Aroostook County, though an increasing number of farms from central and southern Maine are beginning to grow grain.
Maine Grains continues to grow. Amber recently went on a trade mission to Iceland to discuss possibilities for wider distribution of Maine-grown flour.
In 2007 the Skowhegan area had two grain farmers; today, there are over 20.