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Maine Magazine: A Bread Winner

A Bread Winner

 EAT-July 2011

By Annemarie Ahearn  | Photographs by Stacey Cramp

Two visionaries from Skowhegan set out to build a wooden gristmill with hopes of encouraging bakers to use locally produced grain.What emerged from their efforts was the Kneading Conference, an event that celebrates every aspect of artisan bread.

 

Across Maine, a growing number of towns have been struggling economically, made visible by empty storefronts, abandoned houses, and for-sale signs. A progressive few have taken a closer look at the economic sustainability of their communities and are making concerted efforts to restore what’s been lost. Amber Lambke, a resident of Skowhegan, gave up her job as a speech therapist to help revitalize her town.

Lambke grew up in Brunswick and earned a master’s degree in language pathology. She met her husband, a doctor, at a contra dance, and the two moved to Skowhegan about ten years ago. They quickly befriended a number of locals concerned about the town’s future, many of whom were masons and bread bakers. Together the group created the Kneading Conference, an event that would bring farmers, bread bakers, pasta makers, and wood-burning-oven enthusiasts together to celebrate an industry that had been all but lost in Maine: wheat cultivation. Lambke and cofounder Michael Scholz understood that revitalizing a lost grain economy would require a gristmill to process the chaff and wheat seeds from bulk grain. The two went on a quest along the East Coast in search of a miller that would consider moving to Maine and setting up shop. They had no luck and realized that, if they wanted the job done, they would need to do it themselves. Lambke took a milling course in Kansas, and together they raised funds to buy the old Somerset County Jail, which had been vacant for some time. Not only did the former jail become the home for their beautiful new wooden gristmill, but it is quickly developing into a center for sustainable agriculture.

After three years, the Kneading Conference outgrew the church where it began and moved to the Skowhegan Fairgrounds—the oldest continuously operating agricultural fairgrounds in America. A corner of the lot has been converted to a “wheat trial,” or a demonstration wheat field, adding authenticity and purpose to the Fair’s mission. The two-day conference includes workshops, presentations, and panel discussions that focus on the art of handcrafted breads, wood-fired ovens, wheat farming, milling, and much more.

Attendance is limited to 250 people, from professional bakers and bread-baking hobbyists to work-study students, food entrepreneurs, and wheat breeders.

The conference is held during the busiest time of year for professionals in the food business—the height of summer—and, still, tickets typically sell out by mid-June, after which the registration fee increases. This year’s keynote speakers include Michel Nischan, a chef and restaurateur and the CEO of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit organization that promotes whole foods, and Nina Planck, a fierce proponent of traditional whole foods and author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why. Other speakers include Jim Amaral, the owner and founder of Borealis Breads, Albie Barden, a master mason and cofounder of both the Common Ground Fair and the Kneading Conference, and Jeffrey Hamelman, the bakery director for King Arthur Flour. People come from across the country and beyond to share their love of artisan bread and the culture that surrounds it.

Following the conference is the Maine Artisan Bread Fair, which is free and open to the public. People come from all over Maine, and even Canada, to sample fresh-baked artisan bread, learn about building wood-fired ovens, discuss baking equipment with professional bakers, and listen to live music. The first year, the local population showed up in droves and the bread vendors sold out in less than an hour. Two years later, the bread bakers still sold out halfway through the Fair, a good sign for those entering the bread business in Maine. Wendy Hebb, the event’s organizer, anticipates that well over 3,000 people will attend this year—a testament to Maine’s support for local agriculture.

Although the Kneading Conference lasts only two days, it has had a lasting effect on its participants. After attending the conference, Kevin Cabrera returned to his native state of Hawaii and completely changed the mission of his dinner-roll business: he moved away from plastic-bag-wrapped, factory-produced dinner rolls to artisan breads. Bob and Mary Burr of Blue Ribbon Farm in Skowhegan, the owners of Pasta Fresca, plan to source their grain from the new gristmill, which will be in full operation this fall. Many of those who attend the fair return home to build their own wood-fired ovens and share the experience with their friends and family.

The goals of the conference are to keep farmers on the farm, preserve the natural landscapes of Maine, and bring together a community of people who recognize that agriculture can be a cornerstone of the local economy. In Somerset County, Lambke and Scholz aim to create new economic opportunities for local farmers and those selling value-added, grain-based products. On a state level, they hope to be an economic model for other communities in Maine and prove that grain is still one of our staple foods. And nationally, they want to pave the way for other local milling projects. It appears to be working: their project has already inspired the Kneading Conference West, located in Mount Vernon, Washington, which will take place this September.

Building a new grain-based economy in central Maine will have to reverse a long historical decline. After the 1850s, the state’s milling infrastructure and expertise largely disappeared when the new railroad system started delivering cheap Midwestern grain to Maine. Over time, the knowledge and equipment that allowed the state to grow and mill an assortment of grain was lost. Today, most of the milling operations in the United States are white-flour production mills, even though other varieties of grain have a richer flavor, a greater nutritional value, and a more satisfying texture than white flour. Many “locavore” advocates recognize the many benefits of whole foods, which is why they are campaigning to change the way we eat. Jim Amaral of Borealis Bread has been using local grain for more than a decade because, he says, it significantly enhances the quality of his products. Tinder Hearth Wood-Fired Bread, a bakery in Brooksville, uses a stationary bicycle to grind wheat berries from Aroostook County. The new gristmill in Skowhegan, the only former jail in the country that has been converted into a mill for the benefit of the local community, will add even more momentum to the growing movement.

Beyond raising awareness of sustainable living, promoting locally sourced food, and fostering greater cooperation within the community, the Kneading Conference has brought hope to a town that has suffered from rising unemployment and a real hunger problem. The conference has helped brand Skowhegan as a community of innovation that is combating economic hardship with bold ideas and a revitalized agricultural industry. And it shows that a determined few can enrich the lives of thousands.

 

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Gourmet: BAKING FOR A BETTER WORLD

PUBLISHED IN GOURMET LIVE 09.28.11

Molly O’Neill talks to the founders and participants of Skowhegan, Maine’s Kneading Conference about how they’re trying to save the world, one loaf at a time

It was just past 8 a.m. and Albie Barden’s well-pressed denim shirt was dotted with dark, indigo patches of sweat. It was nearly 90 degrees; nevertheless, Barden, an Episcopal minister and the founder of the Maine Wood Heat Company (a wood-burning stove and oven company) couldn’t stop himself. On the first morning of the fifth annual kneading conference in Skowhegan, Maine, he inched closer and closer to the blazing mouth of his newest mobile oven.

Perched on a heavy-gauge steel trailer and covered with seamed copper, the oven resembled the back end of a vintage Airstream. It had just been unveiled, and as he discussed his company’s latest design, Mr. Barden’s face was barn red, his white hair was damp, and his blue eyes glowed like those of a True Believer. “We needed aerodynamic,” he said. “We’re going to haul this oven to schools all over the state using it to teach kids about local food.”

The Kneading Conference is a midsummer summit of some of the nation’s most noteworthy philosophers and practitioners of the locavore creed. For three days every July, they gather at the fairgrounds in the former mill town one and a half hour’s drive inland from Portland, Maine, to build wood-fired brick and clay ovens; teach the science of flour, yeast, and fire; and debate strategies for what the conference program describes as “decommodifying grain” and “creating local grain economies.”

Through it all, they never stop baking the sort of crusty rustic bread that turns polite people into carb-crazed maniacs. “The Kneading Conference is the Burning Man of the breadheads,” tweeted Andrew Janjigian (aka @dikaryon) from the conference. But aside from its small encampment of tents, the creative charge in the air, the waiflike and well-inked young idealists, and the high percentage of men-of-a-certain-age wearing ponytails, the Kneading Conference has little in common with the stoned-out artist happening. It’s more like a tent revival. Instead of “seeing the light,” the attendees “tasted the bread.” Delivered from presliced, doughy white, they believe that making better bread makes a better world.

In his search for the perfect loaf, for instance, Pat Manley, a 59-year-old stonemason, learned how to build exquisite, wood-fired brick ovens. Along with his wife, he founded “Masons on a Mission,” a humanitarian relief organization and project of the National Heritage Foundation that replaces the dangerous unvented primitive wood heating stoves found in the homes of impoverished Mayans in Guatemala with vented, energy-efficient brick ones.

“It saves lives, and reduces illness and pollution and costs,” said Mr. Manley as he heaved concrete blocks and fire bricks at the Kneading Conference, where he was demonstrating one of the fancier ovens he also builds. A legend among artisanal bread bakers, Mr. Manley spends his summers creating these state-of-the-art ovens for bakeries and restaurants, including Loaf in Durham, North Carolina; Spread Bagelry in Philadelphia; Matchbox in Washington, D.C.; Fore Street in Portland, Maine; and Fitzpatrick Winery in Fair Play, California; as well as for celebrities such as Billy Joel. In the winter he assembles a team and goes to Guatemala to construct cheap, safe ovens. “They cost $150 in materials, the labor is us—and we don’t cost them a thing,” he told his oven-building students. “So far we’ve built 3,000 of them.”

Stu Silverstein, a frequent volunteer with the Guatemalan stove relief effort, calls it “missionary work.” An artist, documentary filmmaker, and bread baker, Mr. Silverstein blogs about his search for fabulous bread at www.Ibreadhunter.blogspot.com and is the author of Bread Earth and Fire, a book that describes breads from around the world; he also builds and bakes in outdoor wood-fired ovens. He was standing near Mr. Manley at the conference, making adobe beehive ovens with a group of wood-fire-baking acolytes. “People have a primal response to live fire,” said the 72-year-old. “It’s powerful, an irresistible pull. Giving people warmth and the ability to cook saves lives.”

Adding the smoky, yeasty scent of baking bread compounds this primal allure, said Jonathan Rubenstein, who attends the conference every year. Along with his wife, Linda Motzkin, Mr. Rubenstein is a co-rabbi at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs, New York. Five years ago, Mr. Rubenstein began baking challah, the traditional bread of Friday evening’s Shabbat meal, in the Temple’s tiny kitchen.

“The smell alone pulled in people who’d never attended services,” he said. In addition to his challah baking, he created Slice of Heaven, a nonprofit volunteer bakery that teaches at-risk children the principles of fine bread making. Along with dozens of volunteers from his congregation, the children produce loaves that are sold to benefit local hunger relief; unsold loaves are given to the local food bank.

Historically, said the rabbi, communal ovens were the hub of small-town community. People would make their dough at home, create the loaves, slice an identifying insignia into the top, and carry them to the town oven to bake. “We’re seeing a renaissance of little communities taking shape around ovens,” said Mr. Rubenstein. Americans, he said, are hungry for something real, something to share, something to return to on a regular basis, he said, and he added, “My wife and I started leading retreats called “Bread and Torah.”

Venerable food activists such as Dusty Dowse say that the power of bread and fire is part of the reason that artisanal bread and local grains are rapidly replacing heirloom tomatoes as the stars in the taste epiphanies of recent converts to locavorism. But perhaps the tenets of the creed have also expanded, becoming less about individual epicurean experience and more a latter-day Salvation Army, bent on saving the American landscape, small family farms, and local economies.

PHOTO: RED DOOR MEDIA

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From These Tiny Grains

The Kneading Conference gathers the expert and the eager to celebrate and scrutinize bread—and to talk about building community by relocalizing food production

Metroland by Amy Halloran on August 2, 2012 · 1 comment

A copper mushroom cap with a tall smokestack on a flatbed: hobbit home? No, a beautiful wood-fired oven, more than six-feet in diameter.

Wood smoke laces the morning Maine air, and I keep looking for a campfire, forgetting the stunning Le Panyol ovens dotting this corner of the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds. Only one of the ovens is copper, but all of them are fired, getting ready for the day’s baking workshops.

I fill a bowl with fruit salad, studded with lots of local blueberries, top it with homemade yogurt and Maine-made granola. I’m under the grandstand bleachers, and I pick a spot at a green picnic table. More than 200 of us have come for the Kneading Conference, two days dedicated to bread, but there’s no bread to eat yet. I sit with people I know from other food conferences—a couple who malts in Hadley, Mass., a farmer/baker/miller trio from Ithaca—and try to get a bead on the people who have come from around the world to teach and learn about bread.

There is nothing distinct about this sample set of humans. We are mostly white, mostly over 30 or 35, but little about our exteriors reveals the invisible glue (gluten?) that sent us to inland Maine. I came because I love thinking about grains. How they show how we live at any minute in time. At home on the slopes of the Poestenkill Gorge, grist stones from the 1800s sit with rocks, recalling the Trojans who grew and milled their grains close to home. As soon as the Erie Canal was funded, speculators and farmers bought land in the Genesee Valley, and local production of wheat stalled.

Developments in transportation and technology marched wheat further west, but farmers are growing grains in New York State again. I love to watch the story unfold in their fields and in small mills popping up around the state. I got myopic about wheat in my yard last fall and planted winter wheat; at the end of June we harvested it, thanks to my friend and his sickle and scythe. We’ll grind it as we need it on his bicycle-powered grain mill.

If my compass is grains, most people at the Kneading Conference follow the true north of bread. In June, I met a couple for coffee in Troy. They were headed here, and I learned about the man’s sourdough and his quest for the perfect loaf. He was looking forward to the workshops and to meeting other like-minded people.

There are plenty of them. Amateur and professional bakers flock to the Kneading Conference—this is the sixth—year after year, ready to teach and learn about bread. People study baking ratios projected on a screen, take photos and copious notes. Gradually I learn that the teachers are sitting in on each other’s classes. One presenter, due to teach a class on the French approach to sourdough, wanders serenely from one class to the next. Standing at the back without an air of the authority he quietly possesses, James Maguire answers instructors as they redirect audience questions. The level of respect and inquisition for the craft of baking and its mastery is very high.

During workshops, women and men hold up iPads, filming demonstrations for their own cooking instruction library. People stare intently as bakers mix and knead dough, look for tricks as they shape loaves. They ask some serious questions, as if this compelling hobby of bread is their job or calling.

“Seems to me like you’re putting a weak spot up by putting up the seam side,” an audience member comments after instructor Martin Philip from King Arthur Flour places a batard on a heavily floured cloth to rise. Philip says that the seam will go down on the hearth. Of course.

Teachers advocate for precision. Be a good scientist and take notes as you bake. Use scales to weigh ingredients, or measure accurately with cups (dip and scoop, not dunk and pat). Use a thermometer on water and in the dough. But no one suggests these tools will let you skip handling the dough. Rather, the tools should increase your intimacy with the process.

“Do this by hand first to get a feel for the dough,” advises Michael Jubinsky of Stone Turtle Baking and Cooking School. The class is dubbed Artisan Bread 101. “Once you start using the mixer, stop the machine and feel the dough.”

Jubinsky passes a basket of dough around for people to get a feel for heft and textures. This is not the only class where everyone touches the dough.

“These bread geeks are part artist, part scientist, and they want to teach you everything,” said Derek DeGeer, a baker who sells breads and bagels at farmers markets in Maine. He is taking a workshop on production baking with a wood fired oven led by Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei of Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, Mass.

DeGeer and other participants get a taste of how to handle a bunch of bread doughs for wood firing and commercial sales. Stevens’ approach is looser than many other workshop leaders.

“I’m not scientific about temperatures,” Stevens quips. “I’m scientific about the music. What I like the dough likes.”

Even the more technically minded instructors, however, address the more personal, metaphoric sides of bread.

“I love to talk to the dough because I am going to eat it. People talk to their plants and all they do is grow,” says Michael Jubinsky.

But this is just the baking. Nearby, people are making ovens from brick and mud. They’re listening to talks about backyard grain cultivation and scything, the history of brick ovens and the intricacies of malting. A couple talks about growing rice in Vermont. A man talks about antique corn, and varieties grown by Abenaki tribes that are now grown in Maine.

In town at the Somerset Grist Mill, farmer Thor Oechsner, baker Stefan Senders and miller Greg Mol talk about how their work lives dovetail and intersect at Farmer Ground Flour and Wide Awake Bread. The intersecting Ithaca area enterprises are a model for how grains can build relationships and professions that are personally satisfying and matter deeply to the community.

The Skowhegan mill, built in the former county jail, also houses a farmers market and serves as a pick-up site for a multi-farm CSA. This makes it a great setting to discuss relocalizing food production, a topic at the core of the Kneading Conference. The conference began when people in Skowhegan put their heads together to think of a way to rebuild the regional grain economy. The area had been the breadbasket for the Union Army during the Civil War, and in the middle of the last decade, an army of locavores from Boston and Portland sought local staples. What could the community do to address this lack? A two-day bread event seemed the cure.

The Somerset Grist Mill grew from the conference, pushing the desire to repatriate grains into everyday life. Locally grown wheat and oats will soon be milled in Skowhegan and marketed as Maine Grains.

Next year the pretty ovens will be parked at the fairgrounds again, and more conversations about grains, bread and ovens will make the unassuming site a cathedral to bread. Most likely, I’ll return to listen.

 

 

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Maine wheat? A vision of the future.

April 30th, 2010 by Tom Payne

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When Tod Bramble, director of bakery and foodservice sales for King Arthur Flour, told me he was interested in having us sponsor a grain growing and baking conference in Skowhegan, Maine, I returned a blank stare followed by, “What?”

Didn’t he know I had just posted a blog about our fantastic visit to the wheat fields of Kansas, highlighting the terrific quality of the grain grown there and showing how our consistent flour was dependent upon Midwest grain?  I thought, won’t people be confused by this apparent contradiction?

Then I met with the event’s organizers one beautiful, unseasonably warm March day in Portland, Maine. And it all made sense.

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The Kneading Conference, now in its fourth year, grew out of the local food movement when a group of millers, oven builders, and bakers in Maine realized they had to address wheat production if they wanted truly local bread produced in their communities.  “Local” up until that point had really meant “locally baked” or maybe even baked from “locally milled” wheat – but the wheat itself was still coming from elsewhere.

For King Arthur Flour, “local” flour has meant milled from U.S.-grown wheat. When you’re talking about a product that’s only grown in certain parts of the country, keeping it local has meant keeping it domestic.

Of course wheat isn’t only grown in certain parts of the country – it’s grown in a great diversity of locales. Yet for King Arthur Flour, only grain of a certain specification can be milled to produce our flour.

As I’ve written before and you undoubtedly know from using our products, we’re very picky about the grain. And the grain-growing regions outside the Midwest simply don’t have enough to supply the vast amounts we need. So King Arthur Flour grain is currently only grown in certain parts of the country. Can we, KAF, really someday make flour from grain grown on the plains of Maine?

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Maybe. Or, rather, we better hope so. It’s simply a matter of food security. You already know about the dangers of putting all your eggs in one basket, or in this case putting all your grain in one bread basket. If something should happen to debilitate or destroy the wheat harvest in the Midwest and there’s no substantial alternative wheat production possible elsewhere, we could be in for trouble. That’s one possibly alarmist view of the situation.

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The other perspective is simply that some people want to consume food that’s produced nearby to lower the environmental impact of food production and consumption, and to increase the diversity of agriculture in their regions.

A century and a half ago, most small farms across New England were growing grain for human consumption. There were more than 10,000 mills in northern New England producing flour, from locally adapted, now endangered or extinct wheat varieties. That was before the railroads opened up the Midwest and West, where conditions were more favorable for massive wheat cultivation. Wheat production in other regions of the country withered, too, as the Midwest became the dominant grain-producing area.

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The Kneading Conference in Maine hopes to not only revive and improve upon wheat varieties that succeed in Maine’s climate, but to revive overall the practice of crafting bread locally, from seed to loaf. At King Arthur, we think that’s pretty cool.

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So it begins with baby steps. We’re giving our support to the movement to build a knowledge base among practitioners (those millers, oven builders, growers and bakers I mentioned) so that one day soon Maine – and perhaps other locales around the country – will boast a thriving, sustainable wheat supply.

That begs the question, would a bag of King Arthur Flour from Maine wheat really be an advantage in, say, Arizona? Or even South Carolina? Probably not. At least not from the point of view of the local food movement.

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But what if the people who lived within a few hundred miles of the Maine-grown wheat could buy the flour in their local co-op food store? And what if there were regional varieties of King Arthur Flour available all over the country? A marketer can dream…

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Of course it all depends on whether locally grown wheat – wherever “local” is – can meet the quality standards necessary to bear the name King Arthur Flour. Right now to make King Arthur Flour from Maine wheat (or Carolina wheat, or Arizona wheat), we would have to compromise quality for the sake of producing a regional flour. With our support we hope The Kneading Conference helps Maine reach a critical mass of growers and bakers – and technical expertise – so that someday soon Maine will be a steady source of high-quality wheat, the best of which will find its way into a bag of King Arthur Flour.

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And, at the end of the day, into your homemade bread.

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Currant Scones

Zuni Café Orange Currant Scones

From 1987 – 1997, Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Café in San Francisco served delicious scones.  With the sun streaming through the tall windows, and classical music playing in the background, during those years this combination was one of the best beginnings to a Sunday morning in the Bay Area.  Here is our adaptation.

For 12 scones:

3 cups all-purpose flour (13 ounces)  (King Arthur unbleached all-purpose, or freshly milled soft white wheat berries, 10 oz., plus freshly milled hard wheat berries, 3 oz., or 13 oz. freshly milled spelt berries)

Scant ½ cup sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ pound cold salted butter (2 sticks)

3/4 cup dried currants

1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest

1 large egg

½ cup whole milk (or substitute the juice of one orange for part of the milk)

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.  Combine the dry ingredients.

Cut in the butter until it is the size of small peas (by hand works best but a food processor will work, too).  Add the currants and orange zest and toss well.

Whisk together the egg and milk.  Add to the dry mixture and blend lightly.

Divide into two balls.  Pat out each circle to about 1 1/2”  thickness.  Cut into 6 wedges.  (One of the circles can be frozen raw to use another day).

Bake until golden brown and firm to the touch, about 20 – 25 minutes.
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Maine Grain Conference March 1st, 2013

SAVE THE DATE!
2013 Maine Grain Conference, sponsored by U. MaineMarch 1st – Bangor, ME

Topics will include sourcing, producing, and certifying seed; designing organic cash grain rotations; managing weeds; organic fertility strategies; and more.

Agenda and registration information will follow. Speakers to date include:

– Mark Bernard – organic grain grower, Barnyard Organics, Prince Edward Island. http://www.barnyardorganics.ca/

– Tate McPherson – commodity broker and seed salesman, Maine Seed Company, LLC, Mapleton, Maine.

– Élisabeth Vachon – agronomist, Les Moulins de Soulanges, Quebec. http://www.moulinsdesoulanges.com/en/home.html

– Eric Gallandt – weed ecologist, University of Maine, Orono. http://umaine.edu/pse/faculty-directory/gallandt/

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Farmers grow wheat in Maine again

Amber waves of grain rustled in the wind Wednesday at a demonstration field of winter wheat grown this year on the Farmington Falls Road.
The field, planted last September by Bussie York and now about ready for harvest, is a test field included in the Local Bread Wheat project, a collaborative effort between Maine and Vermont university cooperative extensions to identify the varieties of wheat that will grow well in northern New England. Read More

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Somerset Grist Mill Opens

After three years of preparation and hard work, the Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan officially opened on Saturday.

Somerset Grist Mill is open for business in the former county jail in Skowhegan.

Located in the old county jail, the Somerset Grist Mill houses the Pickup Cafe and CSA, Skowhegan Pottery, Happy Knits and the Tech Spot. But the flagship tenant is Maine Grains, which is aiming to process 600 tons of Maine-grown grain each year. That is the equivalent of 600 acres of grain.

Maine Grains took delivery of its first truckload of wheat ast week: 30 tons from Aroostook County. Read more

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