Beginning as early as this summer, Aurora Mills & Farm in Linneus will ship at least 1,000 pounds of yellow peas a month to CommonWealth Kitchen in Boston, where the Maine-grown legumes will be made into falafel and shipped, frozen, to at least four hospitals in Massachusetts and MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta. More hospitals across New England are expected to purchase the new product once distribution is underway.

The Local Field Falafel production is part of the nonprofit Health Care Without Harm’s national Healthy Food in Health Care initiative, which is placing locally sourced, plant-based protein dishes on hospital menus across the country. Supported by a three-year, $998,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s specialty crop program, the Healthy Food in Health Care program is among several reasons Maine’s fledgling plant-based protein industry is growing steadily.

“The project is focused on increasing production of plant proteins,” said John Stoddard, associate director of climate and food strategy for the Healthy Food in Health Care project. “We want to be able to increase sales and signal the market in New England to increase production.”

Farmer Sara Williams Flewelling at Aurora Mills & Farm said Maine once had a processing industry for peas and other legumes, but it was lost to market changes.

“When your infrastructure has gone away, there are a lot of barriers,” said Flewelling, who along with her husband, Marcus Flewelling, joined her father, Matthew Williams, in 2013 at the farm. Since 1998, Williams has been growing and distributing organic wheat and other grains and is credited as one of the people responsible for Maine’s resurgent grain industry.

Now Aurora Mills is working to do the same for legumes. Flewelling said few Maine farmers grow legumes for the food market (some farmers in Maine grow beans to sell to the animal feed market, which requires less processing). But the call from Healthy Food in Health Care prompted the farm and grist mill to begin processing its own yellow field peas for the food market. It’s been helped by a Maine Technology Institute grant that enabled the farm to purchase a high-tech optical sorter, which is a legume processor able to achieve 99.9 percent purity (meaning no stones, foreign objects or blemished beans).


The Maine Grains mill in Skowhegan has recently begun selling bags of black bean and yellow pea flours. Photo courtesy of Maine Grains

The state’s only other food-grade legume processor is Maine Grains. The Skowhegan grist mill first processed yellow peas in 2017 for the wholesale market, and last month, it started selling its yellow pea flour and another flour made from black beans to retail stores.

Amber Lambke, co-founder and president of Maine Grains, was in the United Kingdom in May as the keynote speaker at the UK Grain Lab annual meeting, where she met bakers and pastry chefs from around the world. These forward-thinking artisans understand the need to support a farm’s full spectrum of crops, Lambke said, and not just its grain crops such as wheat or corn. Legumes, including black beans, yellow peas and soybeans, play a crucial role fixing nitrogen in the soil, while crops such as wheat and corn deplete it.

“Bakeries are awakening to the need to support local farms by using all the crop rotations,” Lambke said.

Some wholesale buyers of the black bean flour use it to make black bean dip or black bean brownies, Lambke said, while yellow pea flour buyers use it to make hummus, vegan mayonnaise or sugar cookies with an “almost a corn-like flavor.”

At the Miller’s Table, the in-house restaurant at the Maine Grains mill, the menu recently expanded to include a vegetarian veggie burger made with black bean flour and rolled oats. In addition to supporting farmers, eating more plant-based protein reduces the production of greenhouse gas emissions, which are much higher from animal-based protein.

“The veggie burger is a solution for eating less red meat,” Lambke said.


Inside the at-capacity Heiwa Tofu manufacturing facility in Rockport, Chris Wildhaber scrapes Maine-grown, cooked soybeans out of a kettle while Kevin Park (background) squeezes soymilk out of the cooked soybeans. Photo courtesy of Heiwa Tofu

Another way to eat less meat is to eat more tofu, and the number of people making that swap has caused the state’s only tofu maker, Heiwa Tofu in Rockport, to reach the limits of its production capacity. Shipping up to 12,000 pounds of tofu each week, Heiwa owner Jeff Wolovitz said between existing customers ordering more and new stores seeking out the tofu, “there’s always more demand even if I don’t do anything.”

He sources roughly half of the organic soybeans he uses each year from Aurora Mills & Farm, where farmer Flewelling is growing 100 acres of soybeans, a warm-weather crop harvested in November. It’s a risk, since an early snow will destroy the soybeans.

Bags of rice grown by farmer Ben Rooney of the Maine Rice Project on the shelf at the Ararat Farms farmstand in Lincolnville. Maine Rice Project/Ben Rooney photo

Another warm-weather, plant-based protein crop growing in Maine with more demand than supply is rice. Farmer Ben Rooney started the Maine Rice Project in 2012 and has produced up to 4,000 pounds of rice a year. This year, the Maine-grown rice is available only at the self-serve farm stand at Ararat Farms in Lincolnville. His move last year to the new farm has reduced his projected yields this season, but his real aim is to empower other farmers to grow rice. To that end he used a Maine Agricultural Development grant to import five mobile processing hullers from India, three of which he intends to rent. He said he’s likely to station one of the hullers at Liberation Farm in Wales, where the Somali Bantu farm is experimenting with growing rice. Like all plants, rice contains protein and is often combined with beans in traditional protein-rich dishes.

“Demand skyrocketed once people started eating the rice,” Rooney said. “The market is huge across northern New England for this rice.”

With all these plant-based proteins in high demand, the bottleneck continues to be lack of processing capacity, and the lack of farmers growing plant-based protein crops.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at
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