July 1, 2008

Going With the Grain

By BETH QUIMBY

The wheat, spelt and oats stand waist-high at the Webb Family Farm in Pittston in late June.

When the fields turn amber in August, the four-generation farming family will fire up the combine and harvest the organic grains, which will be turned into eight to 10 tons of flour that likely will be quickly snapped up by artisan bakeries and home cooks.

"This stuff is tasty and people come and buy 100 pounds at a time," said Kate Webb, whose parents own the farm.

Grain fields like this one weren't part of Maine's farming landscape a decade ago. But thanks to a growing demand for locally grown organic products and the high price of grains worldwide, more New England farmers are growing grains this season.

They're also opening more grist mills, and Maine agricultural specialists are fielding many more calls from farmers with questions about grain farming.

The specialists say the acreage devoted to grains has made steady gains in the past 10 years, although they do not have exact figures. According to the 2002 Census of Agriculture, the latest available, there were 302 acres of wheat being grown in Maine. Six years later, specialists estimate the acreage has more than tripled.

Some of the state's roughly 60 organic dairy farmers, who have long faced chronic shortages and high prices for their herds' organic feed, are among the new grain growers.

"Organic dairy farmers are searching nationwide and worldwide, and they are paying exorbitant rates," said Dick Kersbergen, educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

High prices for out-of-state organic feed is what enticed the Webbs to start growing grain a decade ago, way ahead of the curve. Soon they turned their efforts toward wheat and spelt with the idea of producing flour.

"It worked really well," said Kate Webb.

Their grain is ground at a mill owned by friends, who are Amish farmers in Ohio. The Webbs are working to open their own mill in Pittston soon. They sell the flour from their farm solely by word of mouth.

MAINE WAS ONCE FLOUR CENTRAL

Before the Civil War, Maine was the country's breadbasket, producing much of the flour for the Northeast. Maine's rivers and streams were dotted with grist mills, and grain storage sheds were common.

But all that changed when wheat and grain production shifted to North Dakota, Kansas and Canada's Saskatchewan Province. There, the dry climate, rich soil and flat landscape offered ideal conditions for wheat farming. With the economies of scale achieved by Western farmers and the development of railroads to ship the grains East, Maine farmers gave up on grains for the most part. The grain- growing infrastructure, such as storage sheds, mills and harvesting equipment, also disappeared.

Production of oats and barley has continued as rotation crops to keep the potato fields of northern Maine productive. The 25,000 acres of oats and half of the 25,000 acres of barley raised annually are used for livestock feed, and the remaining barley is used by the malting industry.

But more Maine fields are now being used to grow the varieties of wheat used to make flour. Linneus farmer Matt Williams, a former extension service educator, started growing organic wheat for use as flour nine years ago at the request of Jim Amaral, owner of Borealis Breads in Wells. Amaral was in search of Maine-grown flour.

Originally, Williams sent the grain to a Canadian grist mill for processing. Then he decided to build his own flour mill, and three years ago his Aurora Mills opened for business. This year the mill is producing 15,000 to 25,000 pounds of whole grain flours and rolled oats a month.

"That is double over last year," he said.

About 15 percent of his flour goes to Borealis Breads, and the rest is largely sold to artisan bakeries and natural food stores. Whole wheat flour costs 51 cents a pound at the mill, and buyers pick up the transportation costs. Williams said he's unable to keep up with demand for his product, forcing him to buy grains from other growers.

GROWING GRAIN IS CHALLENGING

With grain prices surging, there is a huge amount of interest in growing grain in Maine, said Tim Griffin, a research agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But growing grain is not easy, especially the high-quality wheat used for baking. Griffin is involved in research with the University of Maine and the University of Vermont to find the best grain varieties and production methods for organic livestock feed for the organic dairy industry.

Growing grain is a challenge for dairy farmers who have never raised their own organic feed before. For the past few years, Henry Perkins has been cultivating 50 acres of corn and barley and other grains at his Bull Ridge Farm organic dairy in Albion.

"The verdict is still out," Perkins said. He has been plagued by bad weather, machinery issues and lack of knowledge.

Perkins also has been experimenting with wheat for flour, and even managed to restore a 100-year-old mill he found tucked away in a back building. He said he got so excited about grinding the wheat he didn't clean the grain properly.

"It was horrible," he said.

He will try again after this harvest.

Agricultural specialists said the grain industry in Maine does face challenges because of Maine's thin, rocky soil and an almost nonexistent infrastructure to process the grains. It will always be more efficient to grow grains in Nebraska or Minnesota.

But the specialists expect grain acreage to continue to grow, along with the interest in organic, locally grown foods and the rise of livestock feed grains.

This year's harvest looks like a bumper crop to Linneus farmer Williams.

"We have the best winter wheat crop we have seen," he said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]

Originally published by By BETH QUIMBY Staff Writer.

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