SKOWHEGAN — Somerset Grist Mill founder and Maine Grains president Amber Lambke sees new jobs and increased production in Skowhegan as possible results of a recent trade mission to Iceland.
Lambke returned late Wednesday from two days in the capital, Reykjavik, to explore new wholesale markets for her company’s stone-ground flour and oats and possibly other Maine products
The trip was organized by the Maine International Trade Center in Portland.
“I have a lot of hope,” Lambke, 39, of Skowhegan, said Thursday. “What this mission did for us was introduced us to key players and initiated relationships. Now comes the work of communicating more specifics about products, pricing, timing, volume. We’re already looking at the potential for more jobs if we take on some of our own distribution and logistics and if we expanded sales to online sales. There’s a lot of room for growth.”
The trade center set up five meetings for Lambke on Tuesday with wholesale food distributors in Iceland, a milling company, a feed-grade grain supplier and a produce supplier.
Lambke and business partner Michael Scholz, of Albion, a baker and wheat farmer, bought the former Somerset County Jail in downtown Skowhegan in 2009 and converted it into a working grist mill, with other businesses including the Pick Up Cafe and community supported agriculture program. Lambke said 2014 is expected to be the grist mill’s break even year.
“Our interest in Iceland is potentially get to our break even and profitable point, which means we’ll need to increase the number of pallets going out the door each week,” she said. “There’s plenty of supply of grain — my job is to find markets for that grain in bulk quantities.”
Most of the grist mill’s grain comes from Aroostook County, but there is a rapid rise in the numbers of farms in central and southern Maine starting to grow grain, she said.
Lambke said she visited Iceland last summer on her way back from a Denmark trade mission. That’s when she learned about Eimskip, Iceland’s largest cargo shipping line, which in 2013 moved its U.S. port of call to Portland with the goal of making Maine a hub for trade in the North Atlantic region.
She said sales to Iceland of the grist mill’s whole grains, rolled oats and stone ground flour could be another piece of the businesses’ expansion to markets in New York and New England.
She said shipping to Iceland from Portland would be just as easy as shipping to New York City.
“The reason we went to explore markets for grain in Iceland is because Iceland only is able to grow a small portion of the barley and oats that their livestock consumes,” she said. “The people eat some of the barley as well, but they’re producing no oats for human consumption and no wheat in that country.”
Iceland’s population is about 300,000 during the winter, but that number spikes during the tourist season to about a million. By 2020, she said, summer tourism is expected to reach two million visitors, many of whom will shop at bakeries and wholesale markets and eat at restaurants.
Lambke said her mission is to revitalize a regional grain economy in central Maine, making it once again an exporter of local grain.
“There was once a very robust grain economy in Maine and throughout New England,” she said in the mid-1800s Somerset County produced 240,000 bushels of wheat a year, and with about 60 pounts a bushel that’s enough to feed 100,000 people. She added that was Somerset County alone and “many other counties in Maine had similarly high production.”
Lambke said the first years of the grist mill’s operation produced 150 tons of wheat and oats a year. This year the mill is on track to produce about 250 tons of product.
Texas-based Whole Foods Market recently chose Lambke’s Maine Grains to supply 10 tons of the heritage red fife flour for a new honey and wheat baguette the supermarket has begun producing. The baguette is baked at the Bread & Circus Bakehouse in Medford, Mass., which supplies baked goods to more than 70 Whole Foods Markets.
Also attending the trade mission was Gov. Paul LePage, representatives from the newly formed Maine North Atlantic Development Office at Maine International Trade Center, representatives from the U.S. Commercial Service and more than 30 Maine business representatives.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367