SKOWHEGAN — Bread makers and beer brewers from all over the state are awaiting the results of a heritage grain project aimed at determining which of the seven strains of wheat and rye being grown in a new study are best suited to flourish in Maine.
Then it’s flour power for baking and brewing, says Richard Roberts of the Maine Grain Alliance.
“We’re looking for something that’s resistant to fungus and something that survives the winter well,” Roberts said from a grain demonstration plot for the alliance’s Heritage Grain Restoration Project at Maine Wood Heat on North Avenue in Skowhegan. “Most of these grains are winter wheat. We do have some spring wheat, like Red Fife, which has been reintroduced and does very well in Maine.”
Among the grains being grown on the site just north of downtown Skowhegan is a variety called Black Emmer, also known as Farro.
“This is Emmer. This along with Einkorn is one of the ancient grains from the Bible,” he said from the tight rows of grain in a light rain last week. Roberts said Eli Rogosa, author of “Restoring Heritage Grains — Baking with Einkorn,” will be among the featured speakers at this year’s Kneading Conference July 28-29 at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds.
Other strains of grain growing as part of the project are Ukrainka, Sirvinta, Banatka, and Rouge de Bordeaux wheats; Midsommer, a Danish rye; and a triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye. There are a total of 60 rows of growing grain in a 50-by-30-foot plot.
The idea is to reclaim heritage wheat as part of the burgeoning organic land movement. Most of the grain currently grown in Maine is for the commodity market, grain for livestock, Roberts said.
The idea now is to interest growers to concentrate on new, organic markets for grains for breads and brewing, he said.
“We were just at a meeting last fall up in Presque Isle with growers, and there were 10 buyers up there,” Roberts said. “There are 70 breweries in the state of Maine, and they all want local, organically grown grain. Then there’s the bakers who want it. And then there’s the organic dairy industry — they’re desperate for organically grown local grain.”
Roberts, 67, of Solon, said part of the plan is to convince wheat and grain growers in Maine to start growing organic products, which would create the market and benefit producers and the growers as well. He said there are a lot of younger farmers who are interested in growing organic wheat, but the test will be to convince the older generation to join the growing organic movement.
Amber Lambke, president of Maine Grains and former executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, said the seed restoration project aims to restore rare and heritage varieties of grain “by turning handfuls of carefully kept seed into commercially viable quantities for farms.”
The project is building a support network of farmers who can learn from each other, share resources and share equipment, she said. Additionally, the group is engaging bakers interested in the development of marketable products using restored seed.
The project is organized by the Maine Grain Alliance, a nonprofit educational organization based in Skowhegan whose mission is to restore grain traditions from earth to hearth, according to Lambke.
Lambke recently stepped down from her position as executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance to devote more time to her Somerset Grist Mill in the former county jail in Skowhegan. The alliance hired Tristan Noyes as the new executive director.
“I am working closely with Tristan to pass the torch, and he will be formally introduced at the opening of the Kneading Conference this year,” Lambke said.
The Maine Grain Alliance is restoring seed for three different strains of Einkorn, black Emmer, flint corn, and several strains of rare and heritage ryes and wheats, she said. After several years of restoration, the Maine Grain Alliance now holds the western hemisphere’s largest supply of a rare Estonian wheat called Sirvinta, a hearty winter wheat, she said.
Seed restoration work has received support from the Sewall Foundation, the Maine Community Foundation and in cooperation with farms and individuals including the Land Trust 45 Farm, Bingham; Groundswell Seed Farm, Solon; Songbird Farm, Starks; Grange Corner Farm, Lincolnville; Maine Wood Heat, Skowhegan; Blue Ribbon Farm, Mercer; Ben Hoffman, Bradford; Gromaine Farm, Woodland; Richard Searls, Solon; Jeremy Gibson, Solon; Somerset Woods Trustees at Taylor Field, Skowhegan.
Albie Barden, of Maine Wood Heat, is a co-founder of the Kneading Conference and is passionate about the restoration of grain varieties that were once grown in the Kennebec Valley region, Lambke said. The demonstration plot he has in front of the shop that makes wood-fired ovens is a study in the adaptability of a handful of heritage grain varieties to Maine’s climate and a demonstration that gives the project local visibility and inspires people to discover the possibility of growing grains in Maine, she said.
Right now, Roberts said, the idea of the grain project is to “get more and more seeds.”
“We know they grew wheat here in Maine 150 years ago, but you don’t really find anything about what the varieties were,” he said.
Roberts said the alliance is getting samples from seed savers — people who save rare and heritage seeds — trying to find grains from a climate similar to Maine’s long winters. Some of the seeds come from the Ukraine, the Baltic region, Denmark and northern France. Wheat that is grown in the United States, he said, is grown in the drier, different climates of the nation’s Midwest and into Canada.
Roberts said there has been some success growing Sirvinta. Some of the seed came from seed saver Will Bonsall in Industry in Franklin County. Roberts said the alliance harvested 1,000 pounds of Sirvinta last year from that stock.
“We’re trying to find grains that like the climate here in Maine, reintroduce them and grow them out,” he said. “It’s really more of a grow out program. I have three different people that want to grow the Sirvinta grains for us this year. We want to get enough to put it out there to be commercially available next year.
“This market is just getting ready to explode”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367