SKOWHEGAN — For Mary and Bob Burr of Blue Ribbon Farm in Mercer, the annual Kneading Conference and the Artisan Bread Fair this week are a natural extension of the farming life they have lived together since 1976.

It’s all about raising food locally, they say; processing it locally and consuming it locally — from seed to loaf, from field to kitchen table.

And for the Burrs, who raise hay, sheep and vegetables for year-round consumption, the local grain connection is pasta making — Pasta Fresca, they call it.

“For our winter projects, we always sit down and say, ‘Well, what can we do?’ and fresh pasta was one thing that dove-tailed beautifully with the grist mill,” Bob Burr said of the Somerset Grist Mill inside the former county jail in downtown Skowhegan. “It needs a high-grade flour, which is what the grist mill is going to produce, so we’re going to be able to produce whole wheat pasta, which will be milled in the grist mill and grown in the state of Maine.

“You grow the grain, make the flour, make the pasta and make the ravioli with ricotta cheese from Skowhegan Crooked Face Cheesery.”

The Kneading Conference on Thursday and Friday gathers novice and professional bakers, millers and farmers from around the United States to learn and exchange new information about growing and milling grains, making artisan breads and pastries and building and managing wood-fired ovens.

Nationally known culinary and agricultural experts present a mixture of hands-on demonstrations, lectures, and panel discussions covering baking, grain farming and milling, earth and brick oven construction, and baking techniques.

Pre-registration and payment for the Kneading Conference are required. The Artisan Bread Fair on Saturday is free. Both events are at the Skowhegan fairgrounds.

Michel Nischan, a James Beard Award-winning author, chef and owner of The Dressing Room restaurant in Westport, Conn., and co-founder of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, will deliver the keynote address at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Molly O’Neil, author of best selling books including “New York Cookbook,” “A Well Seasoned Appetite,” and “The Pleasure of Your Company,” and one-time host of the PBS series “Great Food,” is scheduled to speak Friday at 9 a.m.

On Saturday, the Maine Artisan Bread Fair is set from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. with more than 70 vendors displaying artisan breads, wood-fired pizza, antique kitchen tools and live music.

The events are sponsored by the Skowhegan-based Maine Grain Alliance and King Arthur Flour.

Now in its fifth year, the Kneading Conference began with a group of Skowhegan-area residents, oven builders, millers and bakers who were motivated by the need to address wheat production in light of a growing local food movement. The first Kneading Conference was in July 2007 in Skowhegan, where wheat production fed more than 100,000 people annually in the mid-1800s.

“At the Kneading Conference and the Artisan Bread Fair people hear the artisans’ stories, why they do what they do,” conference program director Wendy Hebb said. “This has the effect of attaching people in new and exciting ways to the place where they live or possibly work. That’s when things start happening. In Skowhegan Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz are converting an empty jail into a grist mill. For someone else it may be patronizing a local bakery or farm stand for the first time.”

Lambke and Scholz purchased the 1897 former county jail in 2009. The plan for the 14,000-square-foot building also includes stone ovens for baking, a retail store to sell bread and locally raised fruits, vegetables, meat, cheeses and possibly a restaurant.

Milling equipment already is in place. The facility now hosts the Skowhegan Farmers’ market in the parking lot each week.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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