Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads.
Leavening the “Taste of Maine” Experience
By Jean English
Jim Amaral and his wife, Dolores Carbonneau, started Borealis Breads in 1993 in Waldoboro. What began as a “Mom and Pop” operation, with 12 breads and about 12 wholesale accounts, quickly grew, so that by 1995 Amaral had bought a bakery building on Route 1 in Waldoboro; by 1997, he had a second bakery on Route 1 in Wells; and in ‘98 he became one of the first tenants in the Portland Public Market.
Amaral’s personal history contributed to Borealis’ success. He was a philosophy and religion major in college, and he was a wine maker – so he was used to the idea that developing a quality product and a quality business would take thought and time.
Another, huge aspect of Borealis’ success is marketing. “We’re always trying to put ourselves in front of the public,” said Jim at MOFGA and Cooperative Extension’s Farmer to Farmer Conference last November. “We’re not shy about telling our story.” That story now involves about 55 employees; about 300 wholesale accounts in New England; and about 27 varieties of sourdough breads – 1,000 loaves per night per bakery on a slow night; 3,000 on a busy night. Baking each loaf is a very labor-intensive, 30-hour process, from mixing until the bread is out of the oven. “We would not be able to compete in the marketplace without quality,” said Amaral.
Dough isn’t the only thing Borealis is trying to raise. Amaral’s quality breads are part of his commitment to social responsibility. He sees the bakeries as a way to give back to the community by providing good jobs (the starting pay is about $8 per hour); a way to provide opportunities for employees to grow personally; and a way to enhance the environment by promoting the growth and use of local and organic grains.
“We do five farmers’ markets in the state,” Amaral explained, “and wherever we go, we try to promote the fact that we’re working with Maine farmers. Five varieties [of Borealis bread] are made with Maine wheat now.” Not all are 100% Maine wheat, however, because of the limited supply available. In addition, Borealis’ Maine Potato Bread is made with potatoes from MOFGA-certified Skylandia Organic Farm.
Some of Borealis’ breads being sold at the Common Ground Country Fair. English photo.
The Wheat Project
In trying to increase the supply of and his use of organic Maine grains, Amaral contacted MOFGA’s executive director, Russ Libby, who subsequently organized a meeting at Thomas College. There, Amaral hooked up with Aroostook County Extension Educator Matt Williams and talked with him about the possibility of getting more organic grains from The County.
Although Amaral wanted more local grains, his business was growing so quickly in 1998 that he didn’t have time to pursue them. Williams, however, was persistent. “Matt kept calling,” Amaral recalls. “If he hadn’t, it might have been another year of two before The Wheat Project got off the ground.” His employees and his wife “were bugging” him about using local wheat, too. Now Amaral’s advice to anyone with a dream is: “Make sure you’re in their face,” as Williams, Amaral’s wife and his employees were in his face.
Thus The Wheat Project – a coordinated effort to have more wheat grown in Maine for Maine bread – began. “Matt was the key person,” said Amaral. “I didn’t know the farmers, varieties, etc.” Williams, however, works for Cooperative Extension and is a farmer himself, so he garnered the good will of Aroostook farmers. “He’s been acting as coordinator there. He really simplified getting it going for me.”
Farmers, millers and university personnel in New Brunswick, as well as the Internet, were also helpful in defining issues and possibilities – such as varieties to grow and methods of weed control. Williams added that nitrogen was a big issue, too. “Either we grow it as a legume or bring it up as poultry manure from outside Augusta.”
Jim Cook of Skylandia Organic Farm added that the real test is: “How does this flour perform on the baker’s bench?” The variety has to grow well, mill well and bake well.
As growers, millers and bakers involved learned about Maine wheat, the acreage planted increased – from 32 acres in 1998 to about 100 in 2000. “[Borealis] could be using 300 to 500 acres just with the breads we’re doing now,” Amaral said, and “plans are on the board for other grain-based products.” In addition to wanting more Maine grains, Amaral would like to see these grains grown in more locations. “Most is growing in Aroostook,” he explained. “We need to look at other parts of the state … the Kennebec River Valley, the Farmington area … Aroostook was the easiest to start with because they have an agricultural infrastructure there – combines, silos and a long history of grain growing. [Aroostook] was the breadbasket of New England during the Civil War. We need access to a combine operator who knows what he’s doing, and we need storage silos.”
Cooperative millers are important, too. In 1999, for example, one batch of wheat that went to a mill suffered 20% dockage because of foreign material – a “difficult situation” for farmers, said Amaral, and one that The Wheat Project is tackling. “It’s very important to get farmers, millers and bakers talking to each other. Some dockage could relate to how the wheat is milled.”
Amaral noted that Borealis buys the wheat crop from the farmer “and we own it,” as opposed to the usual arrangement of the mill buying the grain from the farmer.
In making Borealis’ product stand out in front of the public, Amaral knew that “people aren’t just buying bread, they’re buying the company … I know that if I’m using local ingredients, chances are [the customer] will buy that. Working with the Maine farmer, with Maine wheat, is by far the most important” marketing tool Borealis has. “Organic is important, too, but honestly, locally grown is most important, and organic is second to that. The reason we went straight to [using] organic is that conventional growers were getting $2.50 to $3.00 per bushel [of wheat], maybe less; organic was $4 to $6 per bushel. That’s a significant premium. We pay $9 per bushel. We may be paying more for wheat than any other baker in the country. It’s still not much – about $400 per acre. I don’t know how you guys [the growers] do it.”
In addition to labeling their breads that have Maine-grown, organic wheat, Borealis paid attention to Russ Libby’s advice to “put a face on the product” – literally. Using a $10,000 grant from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Borealis produced “Farmer Cards,” like baseball cards, that have photos of individual Maine growers on the front and recipes on the back. “The more we do this,” Amaral said, “the more the company’s going to be committed to paying the farmer, because they’re adding value.”
Borealis also promoted Maine farmers when it ran a picturesque ad in the Fair issue (Sept.-Nov. 2000) of The MOF&G stating, “Where your food is grown matters to Maine.” The company plans to use this ad in other publications. Also, “anyone selling Maine products should use the “Get Real, Get Maine” promotionals put out by the Maine Department of Agriculture,” said Amaral. This “gets people into the habit of buying Maine products.”
“Jim [Amaral] is clearly the energy of this project,” said Williams. “I was amazed with the amount of publicity he generated.”
Better Infrastructure Needed
Williams said that despite the organic premium, $400 an acre is not enough. Aroostook growers are near the top of their learning curve on growing organic wheat, he said. “I’m fairly certain we’ll equal the [yield of the] conventional product soon. We will end the weed issue in a hurry.” Since increased yields are becoming less likely, an improved infrastructure for storing and processing wheat is the next step in increasing income. Williams himself put up the storage facility for those currently growing organic wheat in Aroostook. He sees the rest of the infrastructure – additional storage and processing facilities, for example – as extremely weak. Weather can also be a problem. “The wheat almost didn’t go in this year because of the weather,” he said.
Williams sees the growth of the wheat crop as relying on “critical mass and infrastructure.” In addition to having enough producers to meet the demands of bakers, and vice-versa, a mill is needed in Aroostook. The wheat is now milled in New Brunswick, and “that border is a risk to commerce,” he believes.
Also, other crops need to be raised. “If I grow wheat every year,” Williams explained, “I’ll have a vomitoxin issue.” [Vomitoxin is a byproduct of fusarium and some other fungi that grow in wheat and corn growing areas. Wheat crops must test below 2 ppm vomitoxin.] “So I grew soybeans [in rotation]. I had a tough time selling them. I finally sold them as feed grain.” Having a local market for cull grains – such as a livestock feed market – would help too; and, in turn, being able to work with local mills to separate such products would help. Williams highlighted the state of affairs when he noted that we have only two soybean crushing plants in the United States now – and they process 40% of the world soybean crop. He added that MOFGA could play a role by helping find other crops (and markets) to grow in rotation with wheat. “If I need a couple of thousand acres of wheat, I need a couple of thousand acres of other crops with equally strong markets.” Soy, clover, broccoli, spelt, rye and potatoes were possible examples given by workshop participants.
Before herbicides became widely used, said Williams, we had more local mills that could separate the best 25 or 50% of the grain coming in. “They had nice little machines doing that, but the big companies have eliminated all of the little, labor-intensive steps and pushed them back on the farmer.” He asked, “What was the best of that technology” that was available in the 1950s and earlier? “How can we use it?” If this technology is not available in the United States, should we look for it at a trade show in Europe?” Russ Libby said that a California company (Eugene Canales, Ferrari Tractor, PO Box 1045, Gridley CA 95948; 530-846-6401) does import farm equipment from Europe, and Jim Amaral said that he is interested in getting involved in milling, and that he is considering selling 5-pound bags of flour in the Midcoast area. A cost of $35,000 to $200,000 was estimated for setting up a local mill.
In addition, “the manufacturing process determines what is called quality,” said Williams, and quality has come to be defined as what is most efficient for the giant grain processor, Archer-Daniels Midland – not what tastes best. “We need to let consumers know about quality taste.” Consumers should want to buy from a farmer who cares about taste, he continued, “not how big his tractor is.”
Amaral agrees and would like to see a Maine wheat breeder added to the infrastructure. “Twenty years from now, I want people to eat my bread and say, “That’s Maine wheat,’” just as people now associate certain tastes with particular regions of Europe.
In the shorter term, Amaral hopes that other Maine bakeries will soon be using Maine wheat. “Once we’ve worked out the bumps, it will be much easier for farmers and producers to get involved.” His long-term goal is to have a couple of thousand acres of wheat growing in Maine … if not more.
The Time is Ripe
Russ Libby noted that “now is the time” to build the networks of farmers and markets in general. “There are lots of undersupplied markets – and lots of growers who say they need markets. Portland, Mount Desert, Boothbay, Damariscotta, Camden … all need more suppliers, all are short of a critical mass of farmers.” In addition, “chefs are all being trained now to look for food from local farmers.”
Amaral suggested finding out who is producing niche products that could rely on local ingredients, picking two or three product categories, and courting the best people to work with. “If you can hook up with small producers and develop partnerships early on, you can grow with them. This is probably one way to effectively start out. It’s hard because you don’t know who the next Borealis or Ducktrap (Fish Farm) will be.”
Workshop participants noted that successful networks involve a positive attitude, a vision and an element of risk taking. Some decisions are “really tough,” such as “trying to project how much acreage you can commit to,” said Amaral. Cook added that successful networks begin with “an interview process” of “people who can trust each other and take a risk together. MOFGA’s role is to keep encouraging that, to get people in rooms together.”
Regarding “putting a face on a product,” grower Paul Volckhausen said that at the coop where he sells, each farmer has to work in the retail stand for part of each week. He usually sends an apprentice or other worker from his farm, but this year he had to go himself, and “the customers loved it. They asked all kinds of questions.”
Jim Cook has found the same: “We tried for three years to get away from this grueling road schedule [of marketing],” he said. Then he ran into a Vermont farmer who said, “You can’t. You have a story to tell, and nobody tells it like you do.” The story for Cook is, in part, that “my farming, besides saving my soul, is the most important thing I do … for my credibility” to the consumer.
Martha Putnam, who works at the Portland Public Market, verified the value of customer-farmer interactions. Sales of Skylandia’s products were never as good in February and March as after Cook spent a single day at the market, talking with customers. “We moved his stuff easily after that,” said Putnam.
Labeling is another way to help customers link products with farmers. Putnam mentioned putting a particular farm’s labels on bags of mesclun and herbs. “People come in looking for the label. The faster they can grab it and get it to the register,” the better.
Putnam succinctly summed up customers’ relationships with and loyalty to farmers, and that influence on buying habits: “They don’t even have to think about it because they’ve had the experience.”