March 10, 2010

GOINGwith theGRAIN that grows in Maine

Making Focused

— When artisanal bakers and farmers get together this weekend at the third annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, they'll have lots to talk about -- and celebrate.

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Artisan bread made with Maine grown whole wheat at Borealis Breads on Ocean Avenue in Portland on July 27, 2009.

Tim Greenway

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Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Borealis Breads' Jim Amaral scales and rounds dough made with Maine grown whole wheat at Borealis Breads on Ocean Avenue in Portland on July 27, 2009.

Tim Greenway

For years, Maine bakers have bemoaned the lack of locally-grown wheat that could help them create fresher, better-tasting bread products.

Now the issue is finally taking a giant leap forward with a new $1.3 million federal grant that will be used to develop organic wheat farming in Maine and Vermont.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund a four-year project that brings together scientists, farmers, bakers and millers from both states to expand organic wheat production in New England, once a bread basket of the nation.

Ellen Mallory, a sustainable agriculture specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service who is leading the project, estimates that Maine produces 200 to 500 acres of organic wheat. Vermont produces about the same.

''It's hard to get a handle on what the demand really is, but we know that we're well below supplying that demand,'' Mallory said.

''People have thrown out the figure that it would take at least 3,000 acres of production to supply just the current demand in Maine alone, but it's not based on any market analysis. Mostly, it's based on talking to bakers who can't find enough (local bread wheat), and talking to the distributors who have a lot of customers who are asking for it, but it's just not there,'' she said.

The grant will be used to test which varieties of wheat work best in different regions of Maine and Vermont, and to retrain farmers in the lost art and science of growing bread wheat in New England.

The project will begin this fall with the planting of winter wheat varieties at the university's experiment station and on local farms.

The project is likely to be a hot topic at this weekend's Kneading Conference, a gathering of professional and home bakers, chefs, farmers, millers and bread-oven builders who come together each year to learn about the trade and participate in hands-on demonstrations.

''I would say the interest is quite high,'' said Amber Lambke of Skowhegan, chairwoman of the planning committee for the Kneading Conference, which is hosted by the Heart of Maine Resource Conservation and Development Area. ''We had over 50 attendees at a grain-growing workshop we hosted earlier in the spring in Bangor. That's huge, to get 50 farmers in a room together.''

Some of the renewed interest in growing wheat comes from organic dairy farmers, who have been suffering during the recession and already have some of the equipment that's needed to grow bread wheat.

Jim Amaral, owner of Borealis Bread's three Maine bakeries and a pioneer in working with local grains, is ''absolutely thrilled and excited'' to see some real movement on the issue with the federal grant.

''Growing grain here is different than growing it out in the Midwest,'' Amaral said. ''The weather is different, the climate is different, the soils are different. So the research they're going to be doing is critical to re-establishing a healthy grain economy in New England.''

Maine potato farmers have been growing barley and oats for years, Mallory said, ''but bread wheat is different, because you have different quality standards. The wheat has to have a high protein content, especially for artisanal baking.''

WEATHER THREAT

Over the past decade, Amaral has been working with a few Maine farmers to obtain locally grown whole-wheat flour for his breads. Most of the farmers he works with are in Aroostook County, where Maine wheat is grown in rotation with the potato crop, but there are also small wheat fields in places such as Norridgewock and Dresden.

Normally, Amaral tries to source 100 percent of his whole-wheat flour in Maine.

He uses 70,000 pounds of flour annually to make his French peasant bread, multigrain bread, rustic wheat baguette, toasted oat bread (which also uses Maine-grown oats) and, of course, his Aroostook wheat bread.

But last year, because of poor weather, most northern Maine farmers lost their winter wheat crop.

So, until this year's harvest comes in, Amaral will use local flour only in his Aroostook wheat loaves.

That kind of situation highlights the need for spreading organic wheat farming to other parts of the state, Amaral said, so bakers are not so much at the mercy of the weather.

For bakers, using Maine wheat is about more than just the current cachet of ''buying local.'' Sure, Amaral can tell you the variety of wheat in his bread, and where and how it was planted. But mostly, it's all about taste. Freshly milled, whole-grain flours have the best flavor.

Amaral gets his flour within a couple of days of ordering it, and uses it for two or three weeks before ordering more.

''If that flour's been sitting in a warehouse -- a whole flour, like whole wheat or whole rye -- for who knows how long, it's losing flavor as it sits there,'' Amaral said. ''It's losing its freshness, which is very different from white flour, which actually needs to age before it's used. With whole-grain flour, you want to use it as soon after milling as possible. I'm getting much better quality by working with local farmers and a local miller.''

Amaral also likes the fact that using local flour plays a part in creating a sustainable farm economy by giving farmers another crop to throw into the mix for a healthy rotation.

''In the past,'' he said, ''most of the grain that's been grown recently in Aroostook County by the potato farmers just goes to animal feed. It goes to the lowest possible use.''

TESTING FOR TASTE

Amaral will contribute to the new wheat-growing project by conducting standardized baking tests to evaluate the quality and taste of the different varieties of wheat. University of Maine researchers will also be evaluating taste.

''We might have two varieties that perform similarly, but their taste could be very different,'' Mallory said. ''I'm an agronomist, so if I just go, 'Oh look, this (variety) yields really well and it resists diseases, but we ignore the taste aspect of it, we'll be failing to contribute to this demand for local food.''

The project also has an educational component. Farmers, millers and bakers from Maine and Vermont will be traveling to Quebec and Denmark (the country, not the Maine town) to learn from people who are already growing and milling bread grains there.

The Quebec trip will take place this fall. Malloy sees it as a good model for Maine, because a mill there, Le Moulins de Soulanges, has been working for about five years to increase bread-wheat production so it can supply flour to local artisanal bakeries.

''By making focused efforts to work with farmers on production practices that will assure the quality they need, they've been able to increase acreage from 600 acres under contract in 2005 to 14,500 acres in 2008,'' Mallory said.

One big issue to tackle in Maine is the problem of infrastructure. Farmers who want to grow bread grain have to have access to combines, a place to store the grain and a place to mill it.

As interest in growing local bread wheat rises, folks around New England are coming up with some creative solutions.

Some New Hampshire farmers, according to Mallory, are considering forming a cooperative to share expensive equipment among several farms.

In Maine, Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz of the Albion Bread Co. are renovating the old Somerset County jail in Skowhegan with plans to turn it into the Somerset Grist Mill. They'll lease the commercial kitchen in the old jail to a local baker.

All of this is just the beginning, Amaral says. He hopes to see Maine follow in the footsteps of France and Italy, where over the past 1,000 years, farmers have learned to grow particular varieties of bread wheat in certain valleys.

''When I started working with local wheat 10 years ago, I said, 'This is not something that's going to take a year or two years,''' Amaral said. ''This is going to take many years to really work on what varieties grow best here, because what's the best wheat for Aroostook County might be different from the coastal counties, where it's a little more humid and growing conditions are a little different.

''And then as bakers, we need to be thinking about, OK, how can we create some unique breads that really reflect the character and flavor of Maine with that locally grown grain?''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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