Maine’s grain resurgence
As interest in local grains grows, University of Maine researchers are working to connect farmers, buyers and producers. By offering workshops and farm tours, as well as studying topics such as climate adaptation strategies, weed management, and disease identification and control, UMaine is helping boost the state’s organic grain production.
The grain sector in Maine has always been a really important part of the whole agricultural scene.
It’s a storied history. If you went back to the mid‑1800s, we had many, many acres of land being grown, grains being grown for human‑grade consumption, and we had thousands of small mills that dotted the countryside. Over time, we lost a lot of that culture that was associated with grain growing.
What’s changed in the last 10 years or so is that there are new markets evolving for higher‑value grains. We have new local markets for barley for malting, for bread flour, for cereal, for oats, and we have organic grain markets as well.
We’re in the middle of the Maine Artisan Bread Fair. It’s a celebration of all things real bread.
(Hot pizza, coming through.)
This is Maine Coast focaccia. It’s made with Maine whole wheat flour and Maine rye flour. It also has seaweed in it. That’s the dulse, yeah. You see?
Yes. I love that.
I started looking for local wheat 20 years ago, and I went to a meeting with dairy farmers, and Matt was there.
They were looking for a Maine wheat for their bread, and…
The dairy farmers thought I was crazy, but Matt was like, “We can do this,” so…
Since it was already my job to promote markets and do things like that, I said, “Yeah.”
Matt was the perfect person in terms of experience, his farming experience, his grain experience, his willingness to take on something new. Here we are, 20 years later, with fields and fields of Maine‑grown wheat and all sorts of people using it.
One of the most important things I think we do with Cooperative Extension and the University of Maine is to take risks for people when it might be disastrous for them to take risks. For instance, we do a lot of variety trialing. For us to be able to just try all sorts of varieties and some are complete stinkers. If a farmer had grown that to try it, and had a few acres of a complete stinker, then they’ve just lost a bunch of money. But we can do it in a way that provides them with critical information they need.
I’m working on the computer models, looking at field data. We’re going to try and calibrate the model to our region, and then what the model does is it takes those climate trends that it’s observed in past data.
It also has a lot of mechanisms to look at futuristic trends. We can manipulate as much as we want with carbon, precipitation or temperature. We’ll use the calibrated model to try and simulate for future scenarios. That allows us to predict the future with confidence, and we kind of need that right now.
The fun part about my job is that, especially when we’re doing on‑farm trials, you get to know these farmers, and they come to rely on you for a lot of information, not just about specifically what we’re looking at in the trial.
Right now, we’re currently farming 300 acres, but the goal is to get up to 1,000 acres. You need scale with grain. Business is really starting to become devoted to local grain. Allagash just pledged to buy a million pounds of Maine‑grown grains for their beer by 2021. We’re part of that. We grow oats. We’re in two of their national releases already.
I’m most excited by the locality, getting people interested in sourcing local grains. It’s an exciting market, and i’’s a lot better premium. I think that is probably where we’re going to see, hopefully, growth.
It’s a great feeling to know that the work we do directly impacts farmers, and the processors and end users. The other part, I love when I find that because of something that we’ve done, we’ve created an opportunity to connect people, and those connections have led to maybe an increase in sales, a better production practice, or a new market that’s developed. Those have been very satisfying moments.