SKOWHEGAN — To reverse health problems such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol — while creating local jobs and community spirit — America needs to look to the past for its food production.

That was the message Thursday from chef Michel Nischan, a restaurant owner from Westport, Conn., award-winning cookbook author and president of the Wholesome Wave Foundation. Nischan was the keynote speaker Thursday on the opening day of the fifth annual Kneading Conference, which continues today at the Skowhegan fairgrounds.

“When you look at what used to be Main Street America — 20 or 30 years ago all these towns in the countryside are going bankrupt; boarding up shops,” Nischan said. “What’s happened to Main Street America? Our food system happened to Main Street America. We had biodiverse farming. All the stores revolved around local food production.”

Quoting a Turkish proverb, Nischan told the audience that’s it’s never too late to reverse direction — to turn back — and look at farming not as an industrial process of refined and specialized foods such as soy and corn, but as it once was, with diverse plantings of grains, fruits and vegetables.

“When we look at the way we have designed the food system, our intentions were ‘Wow! We found this processing thing; let’s build factories, let’s create jobs,'” Nischan said. “But when we look at the populations that were healthiest in our time, it’s when we were working hard and we were eating healthful and whole foods.

“We’ve gone too far down this road to turn back — that’s what you hear. The systems are in place, we can’t turn back. That’s when I like to use an old Turkish proverb — no matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong, turn back.”

Nischan said community-based agriculture and the return of grain production, as seen in Skowhegan with the new Somerset Grist Mill in the former county jail, is looking back to a time when central Maine was the breadbasket for the city of Boston.

Farmers raised grains in fields that also sustained local families and local markets with fresh foods that ranged from eggs and vegetables to beef and chicken. Those farms put people to work and put money in their pockets that could be spent in town for a night out, he said.

“Human consumption of grain is what allowed us to be standing here today — but the clock is ticking,” he said.

Nischan said local, organic sustainable agriculture is no longer “weird” or “hippie.” Even Walmart stores are presenting organic and local foods for its customers, he said.

“We’re in a special time right now, when we can do the glancing back — with intelligence,” he said. “It’s more than just about bread; it’s the entire system behind it. It’s the human spirit that gets put into every single loaf that lets us know that we’re creating something that’s going to allow us to be able to live tomorrow, love our children, have good neighbors and enjoy delicious food.”

The Kneading Conference gathers novice and professional bakers, millers and farmers from around the United States and Canada to learn and exchange 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.

The guest speaker at 9 a.m. today is 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.”

On Saturday, the Maine Artisan Bread Fair is set from 9 a.m. to 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.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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