What 3,000-year-old Egyptian wheat tells us about the genetics of our daily bread

Human societies need food – and that often means wheat, which was first cultivated more t
han 12,000 years ago. Today, around one in five calories consumed by humans is from wheat. Over this time, humans have moved wheat species around the globe and transformed them through cultivation and breeding.

Most wheat species have a hybrid origin. Their DNA has also revealed a complex history of further hybridisation, with modern varieties carrying large genomic chunks that originate from related species. In some cases, genetic material was probably exchanged between species in the fields of early farmers. In other cases, modern breeders have made interspecies crosses deliberately in order to introduce useful genetic variation, such as disease resistance.

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How to build a regional grain economy from scratch

Start by renovating the town jail. Then add flour

Six years ago, Erik LeVine and his partner Rod Lane lost their cable service. They were drug addicts and the bill just didn’t get paid. Tapping in to their neighbors’ Netflix account, they found a list of food documentaries. These movies became an invitation to a new life.

“We watched Blue Gold and Food, Inc. and started questioning food. We stopped doing drugs and started eating mostly plant-based foods. We realized we wanted to get our hands dirty and go work a farm, do whatever it took to change our lives,” says LeVine.

“This is more than a job. It’s a lifestyle choice to be in the local foods movement.”

LeVine is a friendly teddy bear of a man, bearded and tattooed. For a decade, he was a body piercer. Telling his story, he speaks with a smile that’s stronger than the heavy R’s of his Boston accent. Those movies made them think, he said, and dig for more information. They started shopping at Whole Foods, and looking for a place to relocate. They wanted somewhere with a food scene, a farm scene, and a nightlife. Asheville, North Carolina, and Madison, Maine became the two maybes.

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Maine Grain Alliance in Skowhegan gets $50,000 grant

The grant is one of four awards from the Maine Technology Institute’s Cluster Initiative Program


SKOWHEGAN — The Skowhegan-based Maine Grain Alliance got a boost this week with the announcement of a $50,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute as one of four high-potential business clusters in Maine.

The award will be used to study grain drying and storage systems on farms in Aroostook County, where 90 percent of the grains processed at the Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan are produced, said Amber Lambke, co-founder of the nonprofit Maine Grain Alliance and owner of the grist mill and Maine Grains, a specialty grocery store at the grist mill.
The institute’s Cluster Initiative Program awards were issued for projects supporting Maine’s agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries and food production and Maine’s composites and advanced materials cluster. The money comes with a one-to-one match from the recipient, either in cash or in-kind time or services.

The Maine Grain Alliance, founded in 2007 with the first Kneading Conference, received the award for a feasibility and planning project to inventory existing grain drying and storage and to research technologies and financing options to improve the process.

“The Maine Grain Alliance will spend that money hiring help to investigate Aroostook County farms that need increased amounts of grain storage and grain drying capacity to be able to scale up their grain growing operations,” Lambke said Wednesday. “There has been a lot of work done and attention paid to Aroostook County as a viable place to expand organic grain production to serve food and animal feed.”

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Craft beer goes back to its Maine roots

Sixteen Counties, the new beer from Allagash Brewing Co., sources all of its grains and malts from Maine.

By Meredith Goad, Portland Press Herald

In the world of wine, it’s fashionable to talk about terroir – that sense of place that local climate, soils and terrain impart to the taste of a wine. But craft brewers are now dealing in terroir as well, hearkening back to the days when beer was made by communities and not big corporations.

“Historically, brewers would have used ingredients that were available to them, which would have been local ingredients,” Rob Tod, founder of Allagash Brewing Co., said in a recent interview. “And that’s how you had different beer styles pop up in different parts of the world because they were much more restricted in the raw materials they could get.”

Allagash beer has always had a strong Maine identity, but Tod is taking things a step farther with “Sixteen Counties,” sold in 750 ml cork and cage bottles for about $9 at Whole Foods Market.

“We actually source all of our barley, wheat and oats from Maine small farmers,” Tod said. “And the barley, not only is it grown in Maine, it’s malted in Maine. There’s so much Maine in that beer.”

The malted barley comes from Maine Malt House in Mapleton and Blue Ox in Lisbon Falls. Aurora Mills Organic in Linneus provides the oats, and the unmalted wheat comes from the Maine Grain Alliance in Skowhegan.

The beer, according to Allagash, “opens with herbal hop notes, wheat-cracker, and citrus and ends with a balanced, dry finish.” I definitely detected the hop notes and citrus, as well as a strong taste of cloves that dissipated the longer the open bottle rested. It’s great beer for summer, but will be available all year round.

Allagash is donating some of the sales from Sixteen Counties to Maine organizations that support small, sustainable farming. More than $20,000 so far has been donated to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Maine Grain Alliance and the Maine Farmland Trust.

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To build Maine grain economy, advocates focus on infrastructure

By Anthony Brino, Bangor Daily News

When Eric Theriault’s father, Robert, started potato farming in Drummond, New Brunswick, in the 1970s, it didn’t go well.

He “lost quite a lot of barrels of potatoes” and almost faced bankruptcy, Eric Theriault told farmers at the Maine Grain Conference, held last month at Northern Maine Community College by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Theriault’s father also had grown cereal grains, such as oats, and made money selling seeds to other growers, so he focused on grains. By the 1980s he had a bustling grain seed businesses, with silos, dryers, a processing house and several hundred acres in production.

Eric Theriault now leads eastern Grains Inc. in Drummond, about 35 miles northeast of Van Buren, selling seeds and equipment to farmers growing grains for animal livestock feed or human food, ending up in bread, beer and granola. The farm harvests about 3,000 acres of oats, barley, wheat and soybeans, rotating on a variety of two- to five-year schedules with potatoes, grains, soybeans and clovers.

“The buyers are looking for quality and consistency and specific requirements now,” Theriault said. “It’s really complicated to harvest grain. To be able to focus on quality, you need the proper equipment to harvest at the right time.”

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Congratulations to Technical Assistance Grant Recipient Embers Bakery

DOVER – The Dover Chamber was pleased to welcome Embers Bakery with a traditional ribbon cutting ceremony.
Embers Bakery brings local, organic breads and pizzas to farmers markets, catering events and community gatherings across the Seacoast. Built by Kevin Johnson in 2014, the mobile, wood-fired oven was funded through a Kickstarter campaign and featured last year on New England Cable News (NECN) during a show on mobile food vendors.
Embers Bakery recently received a grant from the Maine Grain Alliance to grow their business and are offering a Bread CSA this summer in partnership with Brandmoore Farm in Rollinsford. Embers Bakery is available for private events, crafting and baking gourmet pizzas right onsite for corporate outings, weddings, rehearsal dinners, birthday parties, and more.

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Rare heritage hard wheat sprouts in Maine

By Kathleen Pierce, Bangor Daily News

Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of grain zealots, wheat from imported Estonian seeds is now sprouting in test plots across the state, part of a two-year trial to find what varieties of grains can grow well in Maine. The hard winter wheat called sirvinta seems to thrive here. Soon you may see even see bakers offering loaves of this nutty grain.

“Last year we harvested and replanted 150 pounds and this year we harvested almost 900 pounds,” said Amber Lambke, executive director of Maine Grain Alliance and owner of Maine Grains in Skowhegan.

Under the auspices of the Alliance’s Heritage Seed Restoration Project, “the idea is to get grains growing and make them adaptable to New England,” said Alliance board member Richard Roberts, who also experiments with Einkorn, Black Emmer and Danish “Midsommer” rye, among others.

The Alliance has propagated sirvinta on small plots in Solon, Lincolnville and Parkman and now holds the largest volume of this rare, heritage seed in North America. Results of the two-year “Sirvinta in the Seed Project” will be released to Alliance members this month. The trials, from millers to bakers, were roundly successful.

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Baking workshops at Somerset Grist Mill showcase real bread, economy

Locally sourced foods are building a solid food movement in Maine, said those leading discussions at the Skowhegan events.


SKOWHEGAN — Baking bread is not just about baking bread. It’s about sourcing ingredients, finding out what customers want, marketing, promoting, location and sales.

And it’s about a burgeoning food movement in Maine in which farmers, growers, bakers, brewers and consumers come together for quality products that taste good and are good for you.

All that was part of the message during baking education workshops this week sponsored by the Maine Grain Alliance.

Each new baker is like a new seed sown into the revival of real bread, baked and sold locally, no matter where you live in Maine, said Dusty Dowse, a University of Maine professor, baker and facilitator of this week’s workshops at the Somerset Grist Mill inside the old county jail in downtown Skowhegan.

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A grain revolution is rising in Skowhegan

A grain revolution is rising in Skowhegan By Sarah Walker Caron, Bangor Daily News

In Aroostook County, farmer Jake Dyer is going with the grain.

At Benedicta Grain Co., Dyer has his eye on the future, trying to look ahead to the next five to 10 years to anticipate the market demand for his core crop: Maine grains.

“As a grower, one of the major challenges in Maine right now is the quality of seed,” says Dyer. “If we are happy with [a] variety, we can at least clean some seed and have it on our farm. We can sort of control our supply that way.”

In Portland, baker Alison Pray, owner of Standard Baking Co., still has a hard time believing her bakery is using grain from Maine. Pray is offering a half dozen breads, including two German ryes, made with local grain. The dense, seeded breads are growing in popularity.

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Excerpt adapted from Amy Halloran’s The New Bread Basket

This excerpt is adapted from Amy Halloran’s The New Bread Basket (August 2015) and is printed with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Every July, people come to central Maine to learn about breads and grain. The Kneading Conference takes over the Skowhegan Fairgrounds and makes a little world where everybody speaks some tongue of bread, fire, or flour.

Amy Hallorans bookThe fair is old but the grandstand is new, and looks like the long mouth of an aluminum giant. This is the first thing you see when you park, and there’s no hint that, behind the grandstand, the stage is set for bread. Rolling racks of sheet trays prop up long-handled peels made of steel and wood. Stacks of bowls wait on tables beside plastic tubs for proofing dough. Piles of bricks are ready for a masonry oven workshop. Bags of sand and mortar will become the mud hump of an earthen oven.

Mornings are misty and chimneys puff smoke from ovens that look like mushroom caps, lending a hobbity feel. People eat meals together at long picnic tables, granola made from local oats, and loaves from the day’s classes.

For two days, people make tough choices about compelling workshops: baking with rye, or using sprouted flours? The story of grain projects in the Northeast, or Arizona? Baking teacher all-stars sit in on one another’s classes like jazz musicians at a club, weighing in on questions of fermentation and timing. Serious home bakers come to perfect their hearth-style artisan loaves or laminated doughs. Professional bakers come to learn, too.

On the third day, bakers make their slow good-byes and the Artisan Bread Fair draws big crowds. People eat pizza from a wood-fired oven and take home interesting loaves. Vendors sell Maine kelp and hand-loomed scarves. These booths have little to do with the conference’s topic, but relate to its gut message of reviving local economies.

Snug in the midst of lakes and woods, Skowhegan is home to eight thousand people. The former mill town wraps around the banks of the Kennebec River and its dammed falls. From the 1830s to the 1950s, people made things here and jobs were plentiful. Now the paper plant and the hospital are the prime employers, and 51 percent of the county qualifies for federal food assistance.

Author Richard Russo knows this kind of place, and so do I. He grew up not far from me in Gloversville, New York. Early in the twentieth century, my city of Troy made 90 percent of the world’s collars and cuffs, and Gloversville made most of the gloves. Instead of using his hometown’s particulars to explore blue-collar life, he used Skowhegan and neighboring towns to model the worn-out mill town that starred in his book Empire Falls. The 2001 novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and the movie was filmed in and around Skowhegan. Exemplifying the wasteland of the postindustrial Northeast wasn’t the kind of notoriety everyone wanted. Some people decided to rewrite the narrative of Skowhegan, not on the big screen, but on the more lasting screen of everyday life.

“We needed something new to be known for,” said Amber Lambke, who directs the Maine Grain Alliance and a slew of projects to revitalize grain production. Initially the community’s revisioning efforts were aimed at beefing up the economy in general. In 2005, the town began participating in the Main Street Program, a national strategy to help struggling downtowns bolster themselves. They started a farmers market. Amber was volunteering on these initiatives when she and her neighbors came together to discuss other possible steps.

These neighbors included a fair number of bakers and masons. Albie Barden had an idea. Albie builds ovens and is the Johnny Appleseed of masonry heaters, a style of radiant heating that relies on collecting warmth from intense fires in bulky masonry structures. He’d recently spoken at Camp Bread, the Bread Bakers Guild of America’s immersion workshop, and at another bread gathering hosted by Alan Scott, whose ovens and oven plans helped launch the artisan bread movement in the 1990s. Alan Scott suggested Albie organize an oven and bread conference on the East Coast.

Decades before, Albie helped start the Common Ground Fair. This is MOFGA’s (the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) harvest festival and draws fifty thousand people each September to celebrate handmade living and share the necessary tools and skills. The Kneading Conference could be a similar celebration and skill-share event based on bread and grains.

The topic seemed a perfect magnet. The artisan bread movement had sparked a need for baking instruction and a demand for wood-fired bread and pizza ovens. Bakeries from as far away as Boston were hunting for local flour. Over the course of six quick months, organizers mapped out a two-day plan, inviting experts to speak about their work in the field and teach baking classes. Don Lewis, whose Wild Hive Bakery had built a regional grain and mill project in the Hudson Valley, would be the keynote speaker.

In the summer of 2007, the first Kneading Conference drew seventy-five people to a church parking lot. Three years later, the event moved to the fairgrounds, which proved a good spot to stitch bread back to the land.

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