|Mark Fulford speaking at Rusted Rooster Farm during a field day demo of the Almaz Grain Cleaner.|
|Close-up of the bins below the Almaz Laminar Airflow Grain Cleaner|
|Solar Bubble Dryer for grains|
|Grain from a Maine farm|
By Tristan Noyes
Photos courtesy of the Maine Grain Alliance
Maine’s local and regional grain economy is sprouting new seeds for a vibrant future. Even in the midst of a health and economic crisis, farmers, producers, processors and consumers are valuing the importance of healthfully grown and processed grains for human consumption.
Growing and selling table grains successfully is complex and requires attention to interrelated issues of soil health, thoughtful growing practices, postharvest strategies, processing facilities and well-matched markets.
In the past 5 to 10 years, Maine grain producers, processors and makers of value-added products have been developing solid businesses and attracting regional and even national attention. Supportive groups such as the Maine Grain Alliance (MGA), MOFGA, Maine Farmland Trust, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Coastal Enterprises Inc., Maine Technology Institute (MTI) and Slow Money Maine (SMM) have provided funding and technical assistance along with educational and promotional activities to build producer skills and consumer appetites. Many people remember Maine as the country’s “breadbasket” and have been eager to support the return of that image. In a fairly concentrated time, the number of bakers and brewers has increased hugely, and grain varieties and bread recipes now seem to be common conversational topics.
Maine currently has about 1,000 acres of organic grain production and is the largest grain grower in the Northeast, with more than 51,724 acres of barley, oats, rye and wheat, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. Most grain grown in Maine is not sold to the higher priced markets of food- and malt-grade grains but to animal feed commodity markets.
In 2002, Jim Amaral, baker and owner of Borealis Breads in Maine, formed a partnership with Aroostook County grain farmer and University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator Matt Williams to procure more Maine-grown grains for his artisan loaves. The rise of the local food movement made some bakers, like Amaral, question whether their wheat flour could once again come from Maine. Borealis Breads partnered with Williams, and Aurora Mills and Farm was launched in Linneus, Maine. Williams then outfitted his farm with equipment for cleaning and milling his organic wheat, oats and spelt. Aurora Mills and Farm began to uncover the unmet desire for organic, locally grown grain among bakers, brewers and distributors.
In 2010, inspired by the Kneading Conference of the Maine Grain Alliance and the lack of statewide infrastructure for processing grain, Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz led an effort to research and develop a gristmill in Skowhegan. The resulting business, Maine Grains, is now a significant buyer of Maine-grown grains. Its products serve bakeries, restaurants and food institutions across New England and New York. Maine Grains has helped inspire an agricultural renaissance in Skowhegan and has acted as an engine of transformation in the regional grain economy.
In addition to Maine’s flour successes, the craft beer industry has swelled to more than 140 breweries and boasts two malt facilities, Blue Ox Malthouse and Maine Malt House. Maine brewers use millions of pounds of grains per year, and the brewing industry is helping drive rapid economic growth on farms by helping them plan for their future on-farm investments.
As the market has grown for food- and malt-grade grains, so too has the need for appropriately scaled on-farm postharvest grain handling. Postharvest spoilage begins when grains are exposed to too much moisture, even for a short time. The moisture level of the grain must be reduced rapidly. Grain seeds need to be maintained in viable condition for long market windows, without losing milling, malting and seed-grade germination standards. The lack of infrastructure to help achieve these standards is one of the central bottlenecks in helping Maine-grown grains get to market.
The MGA, with support from MTI and SMM, has led the work on the ground for enhanced cleaning, drying and storing solutions. Its current postharvest grain handling project is a $200,000 effort to support seven Maine farms that already play a key role in the grain economy.
Some of the farms the project is supporting serve as regional aggregators of grain, and most grow a wide variety of grains focused on reaching higher-value markets. The participating farms, Aurora Mills and Farm, Benedicta Grain Company, Lake Shore Farm, Liberation Farms, Rusted Rooster Farm and Yost Family Farm, account for more than two-thirds of organic grain production in Maine. Maine Malt House at Buck Farms, although not an organic farm, is also participating in the project and is an important contributor to agronomic advances in grain growing. By increasing efficiency, reducing spoilage and unburdening these important farms of obstacles relating to postharvest practices, this project will benefit the entire grain economy.
A pioneer of Maine’s local grain economy, Aurora Mills and Farm has grown its family-owned, sustainable organic operations to serve customers across the Northeast. Sara Williams Flewelling, alongside her father, Matt Williams, and husband, Marcus Flewelling, is ushering the next generation of success on their farm. (See “Aroostook Update” in the summer issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.)
Jake Dyer at Benedicta Grain Company uses sustainable farming methods such as crop rotation, cover cropping, added soil amendments and crop diversity to improve and protect the soil. Dyer is always interested in pursuing alternative cropping strategies to increase the long-term viability of his farm and to diversify crop rotation.
Dave Ouellette of Lake Shore Farms has promoted organic grain production in the St. John River Valley. He has been improving his farm practices steadily and purchasing important cleaning, drying and storage equipment, enabling him to double grain production of organic oats, barley and triticale.
Liberation Farms is a groundbreaking initiative of the Somali Bantu Community Association in Lewiston. The mission of the farm is to provide new American farmers access to, and culturally appropriate resources for, the means of sustainable food production for themselves, their families and their communities. The farm has specialized in growing a white flint corn, brought to Maine from Somalia and grown out over time by many skilled farming families.
In 2014, drawing upon generations of potato farming experiences, Buck Farms decided to begin adding value to the exceptional malt barley by opening Maine Malt House. The malt house now provides quality malt for the craft beer and spirits industry while also growing a variety of other grains and small seed crops for additional markets.
The local grain economy has benefited greatly from Sean O’Donnell’s talents at adapting equipment to fit the appropriate scale and needs of Maine farms. He and wife, Sandra, own Rusted Rooster Farm, which now boasts a number of important pieces of postharvest grain handling equipment that helps prepare the six varieties of grain grown on the farm. (See “Sean O’Donnell of Rusted Rooster: Born to Farm” in the winter 2017-2018 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.)
Innovation abounds at Yost Family Farm in Blaine, Maine. Tyler and Tristan Yost grow both organic and conventional crops and have even launched their own sunflower oil brand, Black Bear Sunflower Oil, made from sunflowers grown and cold pressed on their farm. The Yosts have grown grain for a variety of processors across the state; they also create feed blends. (See “Aroostook Update” in the summer 2020 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.)
Even with an abundance of talented, resourceful farms, a significant need exists to help further scale grain growing to meet market demand. The postharvest grain handling project of the MGA is transferring experts’ knowledge of innovative drying, cleaning and storage infrastructure from around the world.
Thankfully, well-known consultant, farmer and orchardist Mark Fulford of Monroe, Maine, immediately lent his expertise as the technical consultant for the project. Fulford has grown grains on research scale plots and small fields since 1982. As a worldwide agricultural consultant, he has recognized that the best way for farmers to capture higher margins is to handle as many aspects as possible at the end of the grain chain. He has observed that less room exists for postharvest error in grains compared with other agricultural crops.
Until this project began, no Maine farm had cleaned grain with an air flow separator. The Almaz is a laminar air flow cleaner with roughly twice the output of a traditional screen system (4 versus 2 tons per hour). It can also separate seven grades of grain with no screens, while commonly used cleaning systems can do only two with screen changes. Another cleaner, the Luterra, is more suitable for smaller farms and has demonstrated success on several sites in Maine. If one machine cleans quality grain at a lower purchase price and creates higher efficiencies, farmers will adopt these advanced cleaners, which are more mobile and scalable.
This project is also exploring solar grain drying options, from solar arrays with electric heaters to inflatable and mobile solar grain drying units that can be used as stand-alone dryers, with no fuels required. In 2017, at Grange Corner Farm (then in Lincolnville, Maine) a solar grain dryer greatly outperformed both propane and super sack needle dryers in trial runs with different grain types. In only 24 hours it dried 1 ton of wheat 4 percentage points. In 48 hours it dried a sample from 16% to 9% moisture.
Participating farmers have been able to see benefits firsthand. In the fall of 2019, Rusted Rooster Farm held a field day to demonstrate the laminar air flow grain cleaner to 30 visitors from inside and outside the state. In Aroostook County, Buck Farms and Aurora Mills and Farm have used the same equipment to clean small grains, peas and even mustard seed. In a field trial of mustard cleaning, the grain cleaner very effectively separated wheat from mustard.
As we head toward a harvest season marked by added complexities of national crises, we take solace in the notion that perhaps our farmers will meet fewer complexities when it is time to harvest grain, thanks to a dedicated, resourceful, resilient community. We look forward to updating you with progress on this project after this season’s harvest.
About the author: Tristan Noyes is the executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance (MGA), an organization fostering the revitalization of local and regional grain economies. He is also the cofounder of Gromaine Organic Farm in Aroostook County.