When the 10th annual Kneading Conference kicks off in Skowhegan this week, attendees will be introduced to Tristan Noyes, the new executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance. When it’s not hosting the wildly popular artisan bread fair, the alliance works to preserve and promote grain traditions, including bringing heritage wheats back into production in Maine. Noyes is an Aroostook County native who runs a lettuce farm called Gromaine in the County with his younger brother. We called him up to find out what lettuce has to do with grain and what his plans are for the organization.

SERENDIPITY: Noyes said he learned about the opening while developing his own plans for expanding wheat production on his family farm. “I found this organization serendipitously,” he said. “I was searching for information online about increasing our grain production. We’re trying to develop a five-year plan.” As he explored Maine Grain Alliance’s site, he saw the posting for a part-time executive director. “I thought, this just relates to me on so many levels.”

THE INTERVIEW: During the interview, he had a hard time containing his excitement. “I was already getting ahead of myself, thinking about the things we could do together.” Noyes is on the board of the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society and has been working closely with the group on projects to help extend Maine’s growing season. Before starting Growmaine, he served as director at EF Education, an international education company. But he has to fill some pretty big shoes: He’s replacing Amber Lambke, the powerhouse who started the organization and will be focusing instead on her company, Maine Grains at the Somerset Grist Mill. “Luckily, Amber has decided to not go far and will continue to be a really strong ally for Maine’s grain economy,” Noyes said. He sees a commonality between them. “She had a vested interest in promoting the success of Maine grains. I hope to do the same from a grower perspective.”

ROOM TO GROW: The family farm is in Woodland, just north of Caribou. His parents grew potatoes and flowers, which they still sell at Noyes Flower and Plant Shop in Caribou. “My poor mother has had to work every single Mother’s Day for 40 years,” he said. “But at least she was working with family.” Evolving the family business is a tradition. “It seems to be that each generation has done something slightly different agriculturally.” Adding grain to the lettuce mix is a no-brainer for the Noyes brothers. There isn’t enough grain in production in the state to satisfy the needs of Maine brewers. “One of the benefits of farming in Aroostook County is we have quite a bit of land,” he said. “Not even close to all of it is in production for us, and I think that is true for quite a few farms in The County. We see (grain) as a nice addition, and I don’t think it will detract at all from the core of what we do.”

DIVISION OF LABOR: Jon Noyes runs the operation in Woodland while Tristan, who lives in South Portland, runs the sales operation. He also drives a delivery truck full of lettuces, picking up in Woodland and dropping off in multiple spots all the way to Kennebunk. Skowhegan doesn’t seem like such a stretch then. “The beauty of it is that I am on the road already.” How many miles does Noyes drive in a week? “I lived in Boston for a long time so I think of it more in terms of hours.” Books on tape? “A lot of NPR, podcasts. But recently I have been enjoying the quiet. Because an hour of quiet is so rare.”

FULL CIRCLE: Gromaine does work with distributors, such as Crown O’ Maine, but Noyes likes the personal touch, especially when delivering to restaurants. “It gives us that much more of a personal connection.” His stops change weekly but include places like Houlton, Bangor, Brewer and Brunswick, where he brings lettuces to his alma mater, Bowdoin College. He graduated in 2005, and while he was at Bowdoin helped found the organic garden, then located at Crystal Spring Farm. Now the organic garden is in a dedicated plot on campus, and Noyes recently got a tour from the assistant chef. “I feel like I have come full circle.” But is the garden he started going to compete with Gromaine for Bowdoin’s business? “Luckily, they like to move a lot of lettuce.”

GOAL SETTING: As executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, Noyes hopes to secure funding to create a feasibility study for a shared grain storage and drying facility; the Noyes brothers aren’t the only farmers in Aroostook County interested in getting in on the growing grain trend. He wants to look for more technical assistance grants for Maine businesses that want to get into grain processing as well as production. Also on deck: helping spread the word about heritage grains with crop potential in Maine. The list includes sirvinta from Estonia, of which the Maine Grain Alliance will produce 10 acres next year, and Fort Kent golden corn. “That is in danger of not being around anymore because of dangerously low seed supplies,” he said. Noyes is already giving it a try in The County. “I literally had an envelope of it handed to me.” Another possibility is einkorn, the ancient wheat that is proving digestible for many with gluten allergies. “There are challenges with growing it in Maine, but we think it could still be a viable resource.”

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