Tristan Noyes at the Common Ground Country Fair with Sarah Alexander (left), MOFGA’s executive director, and Heather Spalding (right), MOFGA’s deputy director. English photo
Growing Together: Reaping the Rewards of a Passionate Interconnected Community
Sunday, September 21, 2018 – Common Ground Country Fair, Unity, Maine
Tristan Noyes is executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance (MGA), which fosters revitalization of local and regional grain economies. Also, he and his brother Jon co-founded GROMAINE, an Aroostook County organic farm producing leafy greens, potatoes and ancient grains. Most recently Noyes helped spearhead Taste Maine’s Future, an initiative creating new sales channels for Maine food producers through education, storytelling and celebratory events. His complete and eloquent Common Ground Country Fair keynote speech from September 21, 2018, is posted on YouTube. The version below has been edited for length.
I am here to share inspiring stories of passionate folks who are helping shepherd in a new era of organic collaboration across industries, our region and individuals. Often any story I tell begins in Aroostook County. The tight-knit communities there coupled with pervasive shared agricultural connections promote a culture of collaboration. It is the culture of agri.
For example the history of growing potatoes is a collaborative story, with folks from all fields lending their hands to harvest. Ask anyone from Aroostook County about the potato and you are likely to learn about a half dozen varieties, how they’re grown, when they’re planted, when they blossom and how they’re harvested.
Not long ago Maine was one of the largest potato growing regions in the world. During harvest northern Mainers would tune in to the 58-year-old Potato Pickers Special on WAGM television station based in Presque Isle (still going strong) to learn which farms were digging that day and needed harvest crews. People would come from Canada, the Allagash and southern locales to help. They often had other professions, but the collaborative harvest seemed to supersede everything else for three weeks. In my grandmother’s barn and the attached lodging building are notes potato pickers wrote on the wall to say hello to old friends who would arrive later.
Dozens of pickers would line up in the field, watch the digger turn the earth, flopping the potato on the freshly turned soil. They would then pick the potatoes into a basket, lug the basket to the barrel, fill the barrel, tag it with their number, and then it would be hauled away by a skilled team on the loading truck. When the truck was full, they would unload the barrels in the potato house. At 12 years of age, my father weighed about 85 pounds and would roll the 165-pound barrel up a narrow plank to deposit in the potato house. He often joked that he received his Ph.D. at age 12 … his potato house degree. This team work helped me understand the value of collaboration. I think in many ways it set the tone for some exciting collaborations we are now experiencing in organic agriculture.
Our Agricultural History
For generations our family has been involved in agriculture, but each generation has slightly adapted its approach. The two most recent generations have taken on an effort to grow organically. In fact my parents began an organic and natural food store in the early 1970s in Caribou. At the same time they began Noyes Flower and Plant Shoppe, which for 45 years has grown annuals, perennials, blooming plants, vegetables and cut flowers for our community. Both of my grandparents on either side grew potatoes as did their parents on both sides.
I think one of the most powerful ways in which we create a passionate community is through our stories, and on our farm we have been growing them for generations. My great grandfather, Lester Towsend, for example, was a dairy farmer, potato farmer and pharmacist. He would wake at 3 a.m., do chores, milk cows, have breakfast, head to town to fill prescriptions, come back to work the potato farm, have lunch, work in the field, do chores, milk cows, head back to town to fill prescriptions again, head home for supper, go to bed and repeat all that the next day. My grandmother says he could be a little cranky.
His father, William Townsend, grew grain and potatoes. One day after harvesting oats, covered in dirt and chaff, he came home to the Dyer Brook farmhouse where my grandmother was born, walked into the kitchen, and the first lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, was sitting there. She and her secretary had stopped to visit our family on their way to Campobello Island. They had a habit of visiting people along the way who had physical handicaps (my grandmother had rheumatoid arthritis) but were still vibrant in their communities. Eleanor Roosevelt truly cared about understanding the lives of people and sought to help them achieve their goals.
Even our machinery connects us to one another. Five or six years ago, we brought our 1963 Massey Ferguson to our trusted mechanic. Having worked on tractors in our area for the better part of 70 years, he remembered ours. He said to our father, “Your granddad wore this tractor out. Then your dad wore this tractor out. You’ve done a pretty good job of wearing this tractor out.” To which our father responded, “Well, think you could get it tuned up so we can wear it out again?” The mechanic replied, “No problem.”
Often a farmer’s story involves a tractor as the central character or at least in a strong supporting role – like when my father at age 12 “borrowed” without permission the brand new, bright red 1963 Massey Ferguson to go to the baseball field. The story involves a steep downhill grade, a sweeping corner, two wheels hugging the asphalt and two suspended in mid-air. Or when my brother first rode with our father on the Farmall H. The low, rhythmic put-put of the engine revving to full roar is beautifully etched in his mind. My mother tells of mowing fields with a sickle bar attached to our John Deere B with the narrow front end, and the time she ran into the barn door because of the tricky hand clutch.
At Bowdoin College I wanted to share with my friends and classmates a bit of my heritage. We envisioned our agricultural spaces as areas for producing healthy produce for the dining halls and for cultivating a greater understanding of and connection with the natural history of our foods. From that the Bowdoin Organic Garden formed. We collaborated with the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, which was in the midst of protecting a large parcel of land and collaborating with talented farmer Seth Kroeck of Crystal Springs Farm. I remember fondly planting peas early in the morning before dusting myself off to go take a final exam. The garden, now in its 14th year, is operated by the college’s dining service and includes a garden manager, students and volunteers. It grows produce and flowers for the college dining halls, provides research opportunities for the faculty, and agricultural experiences and events for the college community. One of the folks I connected with through the garden was Joel Cartwright. It was one of the most fun experiences of my college career. Highlighting the interconnectedness of our community, GROMAINE Organic Farm now sells to Bowdoin College, and one of our primary competitors is the garden I helped to start.
After college I hiked the Appalachian trail through Maine and New Hampshire before hitching a ride to Boston, where I followed another passion: global education. I loved my work but missed the connection to Maine agriculture. Often I would get a box postmarked from Caribou, from my father, that would include a new business venture. Once I received eight 4-inch pots with planted grain, with a note saying, “Just add water and you’ve got organic cat grass.” The idea that really hit me came in a small envelope on a small piece of paper with a hand-drawn logo colored in with crayons. It said “We GROMAINE Lettuce.” I loved the thought and the care with which he sent it. I hung it on my refrigerator for six years, looking at it almost every day. One day I decided to go for it, and GROMAINE Organic Farm was born.
My brother Jon and I wanted to continue our roots in Aroostook but we needed to access markets outside of Aroostook. So we collaborated. Jon manages operations in Aroostook and I manage our relationships in Southern Maine.
Jon and I, raised to appreciate the soil and all the friends we made on it, experienced countless acts of generosity, unique cultivation of ideas, and a hearty spirit imbued with a sense that nothing is impossible. So at its root GROMAINE cares about kindness, quality, innovation and tradition.
Our farm provides organic, sustainably grown grains, lettuce, leafy greens, potatoes, flowers and other veggies to select Maine restaurants, specialty grocers and directly to consumers. We have a farm share, we do mail-order and a spud-of-the-month club. The farm connects consumers to the land by sharing the entire growing process, from seed to leaf and farm to fork.
When miles separate us from the market, we foster community with beautiful photos, videos, a blog and a podcast chronicling what life was like on a Maine farm at different periods. We share fun facts. For example, at 46.9 degrees N latitude, our farm is farther north than two-thirds of the Canadian population; our plant hardiness zone is 3b – the same as Nome, Alaska; our farmhouse and barn were built by Swedish pioneers in the 1870s with hand-hewn lumber cut from our farm and with wooden pegs; moose are common on our farm and love our veggies.
My brother and I were invited to Milan, Italy, last summer to discuss the future of food with students on a Global Student Leadership summit. We presented a real life case study: Discuss the advantages, opportunities and challenges of organic and conventional farming. Participants examined our farm from the perspective of an organic and a conventional farmer. Each side made its best case as to which style GROMAINE should pursue. Pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs and the economics of American agriculture were at the heart of this discussion. In the end, organic won the day.
The Maine Grain Alliance
We presented this case study because we had been exploring expanding our acreage to grow grain. We Googled “growing grains in Maine,” and one of the first results was the Maine Grain Alliance. I got excited about how they were helping to breathe new life into a once-dormant grain economy. I learned about seed restoration efforts, small-scale equipment that met the needs of our organic farm, and most importantly I observed a passionate interconnected group of activators who sought a wide and diverse community to learn from one another. This organization became a thought leader for young organic farmers.
In 2007 a group of inspired community volunteers gathered in Skowhegan and dreamed of an event that could initiate rebuilding the local grain economy as a way to find new economic opportunities in rural central Maine. The result was the Kneading Conference. Now nationally recognized, it brings together grainiacs and bread buffs from all over the country. Farmers, professional and home bakers, brewers, chefs, cooks, grain researchers, maltsters, food entrepreneurs and wood-fired oven enthusiasts educate one another about the art and science of growing and milling grains, baking artisan breads and brewing delicious beer. In two full days of workshops on grains and hands-on baking, participants rub elbows with some of the world’s most acclaimed bakers, brewers and oven builders. The conference has become a summer camp of sorts for 250 amateur, want-to-be and professional bakers and brewers.
The impact of the conference on local communities has been incredible. People refer to resulting startup enterprises as the “Skowhegan Food Hub” and to Skowhegan as a “Food Town.” Transforming the County Jail into the Somerset Grist Mill, now home to Maine Grains, spawned satellite enterprises: an expanded farmers’ market; the Miller’s Table café, featuring flour from the attached mill and local foods from surrounding farms; a yarn shop and a community radio station.
The goal of the conference was to encourage more village bakers, more small farms cultivating grains for local bakeries, and more producers to master the wood-fired oven, which produces superior bread. The successful conference led to creation of the nonprofit MGA to preserve and promote grain traditions, from earth to table. MGA provides opportunities to learn and share how best to grow and use grains, using a combination of traditional, innovative and sustainable techniques. It promotes beneficial uses of grain for good health, food independence and purposeful jobs within viable communities.
In 2010 we launched the Maine Artisan Bread Fair, a free annual festival dedicated to craft bread and Maine-made foods. At Common Ground we noticed that our mobile wood-fired oven interested all types of people; it is the perfect gateway for initiating conversations about why local grain networks matter.
Since then the MGA has opened a year-round slate of programs, including workshops on brewing, oven construction, scything, corn keeping, seed saving, growing grains organically and more.
The MGA has started a project to restore rare and heritage variety grains by turning handfuls of carefully kept seed into commercially viable quantities. The project is building a network of farmers who can learn from each other and share resources and equipment. We engage bakers in developing marketable products using restored seed.
The MGA recently restored seed for three strains of einkorn, black emmer, flint corn and several strains of rare and heritage ryes and wheats; it now holds the western hemisphere’s largest supply of a rare Estonian wheat called Sirvinta.
Restoring and scaling Maine’s grain industry depends upon bringing back seed varieties adapted to today’s climate and growing season. Much of the breeding being done in Maine has been by the talented Eli Rogosa, Will Bonsall, Mark Fulford and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The Elmina B. Sewall Foundation initially made funds available to engage organic growers to test and rebuild commercial quantities of diverse, locally adapted seeds from rare, unique varieties. Since 2013, MGA has employed experienced and interested farmers in central Maine to nurture selected varieties, pool seed and increase production capability.
The seed propagation project addresses a short-term need and builds relationships, systems and equipment that will live on. The bottleneck in getting rare grain seed to market had not previously been addressed. Developing the network of growers will exponentially increase seed supplies in Maine. Growers will then be able to sell seed to larger scale growers who can sell grain to gristmills and end users. The widespread repatriation of Red Fife wheat in Canada in the late 1980s, from just 1 pound of seed, is an example that MGA aims to replicate. By cultivating open-sourced seed, freely owned by the people, Maine preserves local varieties through natural processes of adaptation and protects access to a diverse array of seeds.
The MGA awards technical assistance mini-grants to grain-based businesses in Maine to seek professional training, hire consultants, build logos, websites and branding materials, and equipment, with the goal of strengthening the cluster of grain businesses in Maine.
State of Organic
In Maine, what has been good for bread has been good for beer, and vice-versa. Both industries have helped re-energize the grain economy, but our regional grain is also motivated to meet organic requirements for milk, livestock and egg production, a consumer desire for transparency in the food system, food independence, good health and the need for nutritious and delicious grains. The Organic Trade Association reports that U.S. consumer demand for organic products is steadily rising, while national consumption of white flour is decreasing. The Whole Grain Council reports increased awareness of the benefits of whole grains and a desire for heritage grains, which predate modern seed manipulations.
Within the last decade, national agricultural production maps did not recognize Maine as a wheat producing state because less than 1,000 acres was reported, and less than one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. grain produced is organic. This could be a real opportunity for Maine and the Northeastern grain economy. National brands like Organic Valley, Stonyfield, Annie’s, Pete and Gerry’s Eggs, Dave’s Killer Bread, Whole Foods and others are interested if we can continue to create the infrastructure and knowledge to access these markets consistently.
Farmers like my great great grandfather planted cover crops like winter rye and oats for feed and human grade grain, to out-compete weeds and for soil health. The straw could be used as mulch and livestock bedding. During the 1940s and ‘50s, use of grains as a cover crop declined with the availability of chemical inputs, and grain moved from smaller independent farms to the flat, large expanses of the “breadbasket states,” where crop rotations decreased in favor of single crops grown year after year.
As we moved away from integrated systems of grain growing, we began to lose the knowledge of how to grow grains organically. Now MOFGA and the MGA have collaborated for over a decade to help reinstitute the dynamic culture of grain growing.
Relieving Bottlenecks for Grain Production
The MGA is also involved in scaling organic grain processing to meet market demand. Businesses are asking New England and especially Maine to increase production. Using innovative technologies adapted to the Northeast climate, MGA seeks to address the need for appropriate drying, sorting and storage infrastructure.
MGA has also helped inspire local grain projects nationwide. With its wide online audience and national partners like King Arthur Flour and LeSaffre Yeast, the MGA has inspired events in Asheville, North Carolina; Washington state; Montreal, Quebec; Plymouth, Massachusetts; and many more.
Who Helped Us Grow?
Numerous foundations, including the Broadreach Fund, the Quimby Family Foundation, the Maine Community Foundation, the Sewall Foundation, Northeast SARE, the Betterment Fund, the Bill and Joan Alfond Foundation and others have supported MGA. In 2012 the Betterment Fund helped us provide small match funding to several central Maine grain farms and mills to purchase small-scale drying and storage equipment. In 2013 the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation funded our purchase of demonstration seed planting, harvesting, threshing, cleaning and solar drying tools to work with local small-scale seed growers. In 2014 and 2015 Allagash Brewing Company and Quimby Family Foundation collectively awarded us $20,000 to re-grant to 30 small grain-based businesses in Maine for technical assistance and equipment. In 2016, the Maine Technical Institute helped us tackle a study to address appropriately scaled infrastructure for drying, sorting and storing grains.
Some of the true innovators of this industry are Jim Amaral of Borealis Breads and Matt Williams (and now his daughter, Sarah Flewelling) of Aurora Mills and Farms. In 2002 Jim was seeking Maine grain to use in his bakery. He partnered with Williams. Later I realized that Aurora and Borealis were meant to be together.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Local Bread Wheat Project trialed varieties and took a group to Europe to study grain systems.
Dusty Dowse can break down the chemistry of bread making, but he really loves the magic of baking and has started Lammastide Bakers. He is the MGA baking education director.
Amber Lambke and her business partner, Michael Scholz, led a five-year effort to research and develop a gristmill in Skowhegan. They launched operations in a former county jail building, a renovation project that has attracted other entrepreneurs to the region.
Our work has been chronicled by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Saveur Magazine and others. A Chronicle story about The Kneading Conference aired around Boston and spurred hundreds to visit central Maine. Bakeries from around the Northeast started to contact mills and organizations to buy grains from our producers.
Malthouses and Breweries
Maine now has over 120 craft breweries, versus 30 in 2009. Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon and Maine Malt House on Buck Farms in Aroostook enable preparation of Maine-grown malted grain for use by brewers. Maine brewers use millions of pounds of grain per year. Hops take much fanfare, but outside of water, barley and grain account for most of what goes into beer. The Maine Brewers’ Guild is a committed partner in promoting and supporting Maine’s grain economy.
The Maine brewing industry’s collaboration and innovation are helping drive rapid economic growth. Our Kneading Conference workshop by celebrated brewmaster Jason Perkins of Allagash Brewing Company teaches students how best to use local inputs. Allagash announced that it will purchase over 1 million pounds of local grains by 2021. For perspective, last year it purchased about 60,000 pounds; this year it doubled that. It sources from Aurora, Maine Grains, Blue Ox Malthouse, Maine Malthouse and others.
Even small breweries have a big impact. Bigelow Brewing Company uses 100 percent Maine-grown barley and malt.
Last year we awarded scholarships to the Somali Bantu community to learn about our methods for growing flint corn. They taught us about their heritage of growing grain. The Bankery, Night Moves and Brazen Baking also use huge amounts of Maine-grown flour.
I just led a group of investors who are looking at the business side of grain growing in Maine. We visited the University of Maine at Presque Isle, which just developed a sustainable agriculture program. Jason Johnson, one of the heads of that program, is also the lead grower of Aroostook Hops. I was there representing GROMAINE, the MGA and Taste Maine’s Future. I told Jason that I could transport his hops in our refrigerated trucks. This is the network we’ve created.
Recently folks met Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue along with Senators King and Collins at Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth. All 30 or so people there knew one another. The owner of an organic farm in attendance said, “I came to Maine as part of the MOFGA Journeyperson Program and learned my craft there. I then needed to secure farmland, so I spoke with Maine Farmland Trust and Land for Good, and found land that was going to be desirable for my family. I then spoke with Coastal Enterprises Inc. and found ways to finance the land through them. I then got that land, and [I] speak with everyone in this room about how to make this a passionate, interconnected, community farm.”
We are beginning to reap the rewards of creating an interconnected community of grainiacs. All who love real bread are helping. This is the work of people who are passionate and full of life. Energy and interest from all segments of the grain community are giving rise to village bakeries. Locally grown and milled flour has allowed bakeries to join the local food movement in new ways, thus addressing customer demand.
Bakers are baking in their own wood-fired oven, with flour milled by their own onsite mill, from grain of a nearby farmer. These same bakers have been inspired to innovate, seek the freshest ingredients and understand grain varieties as they relate to differences in flavor. Young farmers are looking to move to grain, like their great, great grandparents before them. Shared infrastructure and tools are once again becoming available.
Where one tiller of grain might have existed, the building of relationships and sharing of resources are causing many tillers to spring forth from the ground. The result is almost certainly a more bountiful harvest for each of us who loves organic and celebrates rural living.
Thank you so much. It is one of the deepest honors I’ve had, to speak with you here at a place that inspired me to become an organic farmer.