The idea for the Kneading Conference began with a group of Skowhegan residents who were motivated by the need to address wheat production as an important cornerstone of a growing local food movement. The first Kneading Conference was held in July of 2007 in the heart of Somerset County, where wheat production fed over 100,000 people annually until the mid-1800′s. With the advent of transcontinental railroads and the appeal of the rich topsoil and longer growing season of the central plains, grain farming in Maine declined. Today less than 1% of Maine’s wheat demand is actually grown in Maine. Reviving wheat varieties that succeed in Maine’s climate is not only a realistic goal, but a critical one in light of rising transportation costs and the recognition that food security must rely on local farms.
The Kneading Conference has been held each year since 2007 and has grown significantly. 2011 was a milestone year: we received nonprofit status as the Maine Grain Alliance; we helped organize the first Kneading Conference West at Washington State University in Mount Vernon, Washington; and we purchased a portable wood-fired oven to use for educational workshops and for fundraising. 2012 was also a turning point for the Maine Grain Alliance: we contributed to the renovation of the commercial kitchen at the Somerset Grist Mill, thereby paving the way for year-round educational baking workshops, launched in the winter of 2013.
The success of the Kneading Conference’s approach to restoring lost grain economies is having real and measurable impact. By bringing together the diverse stakeholders who collectively can rebuild lost infrastructure and create demand for local and regional grain systems – farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, wheat researchers – on-the-ground plans take shape. In Maine, the Kneading Conference has been the impetus for start-ups amongst a growing cluster of grain-related businesses.
A major accomplishment that has enabled development of these small for-profit businesses has been the leadership provided by investment groups and nonprofits such as the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation and Small Potatoes Investments. They have leveraged creative funding systems to enable nonprofits to finance agricultural enterprises in Maine. Both the Kneading Conference model of bringing together the people who can implement agricultural revivals and the investment model that enables nonprofits to support for-profit businesses are being observed and replicated in other parts of the country, as recorded in national publications. (See “news”.)