Maine's organic grain producers see increasing consumer demand. Can supply keep pace?

·8 min read

Jul. 24—While restaurants and food producers statewide have taken a hard hit from supply chain snafus and labor shortages, Maine's organic grain growers and producers have seen an upswing in business since the pandemic began.

For instance, when new home baking enthusiasts around the country suddenly found themselves stymied by a nationwide shortage of all-purpose flour during the lockdown phase of 2020, Maine Grains helped fill their ingredient needs.

The Skowhegan-based organic grains mill and production facility had been doing about 90 percent of its business in the wholesale market — selling to bakeries, breweries and restaurants — and 10 percent in retail. But their wholesale customers were facing serious operational concerns, cutting back business hours and sometimes even being forced to close because of the pandemic.

"Practically overnight, that ratio of wholesale to retail turned to 50-50," said Maine Grains co-founder and president Amber Lambke.

Maine Grains had previously been filling about a couple dozen online retail orders each week for its stone-milled organic flours and whole grains. Suddenly, retail demand jumped to as much as 180 orders a day, mostly flour, for orders placed all around Maine, throughout the Northeast, and as far away as California.

"We'd run out of space to fulfill online orders. We had to fill them in a hallway in the office for about a year," Lambke said.

The volume of demand for Maine Grains products has since drifted back toward earth, but remains high enough that Lambke said the company will build a new online fulfillment center in the next year or two in the parking lot across from the former jailhouse that has housed Maine Grains since 2012.

"Overall, we've seen great growth," said Lambke, who also serves on the board of the Maine Grain Alliance. "Maine's grain economy is gaining capacity. And the last couple of years have demonstrated why our regional grain economy is so important: It protects us from problems in the global supply chain."

The state's organic grain growers said the growing market for their wheat, oats, rye and other grains has been a blessing.

"There's demand for these grains, for sure," said Sarah Williams Flewelling, a partner in Aurora Mills and Farm in Linneus. "Everything is pretty rosy for my business right now."

On the whole, Maine's grain economy appears robust and growing stronger. As Skowhegan prepares to host the Maine Grain Alliance's 15th annual Kneading Conference at the end of July, growers and producers have reason for optimism, not just because of sales numbers, but also because of the public's increasing appreciation for artisan grain products.

"We have home bakers tell us all the time that our flours have transformed their baking," Lambke said, noting that Maine Grains' stone-milling process retains essential oils from the germ and bran in grains, giving their artisanal flours better flavor than bland industrial all-purpose white flours. "People taste the difference."

MORE EQUIPMENT AND STAFF TO MEET DEMAND

Lambke's business received a huge boost in 2020 when Hannaford, in response to the flour shortage, started selling Maine Grains spelt flour, all-purpose flour and pastry flour in more than 170 stores throughout New England. To meet the sudden new demand, Maine Grains bought three weigh fill machines to help fill and pack more orders, along with an automated culler and sorter.

Maine Grains also hired a couple of bakers to make breads, pastries, cookies, gluten-free crackers and other items for retail sale at their Skowhegan store. Their on-site restaurant, The Miller's Table, has become known for its "Maine Craft Pizza," branding from the Maine Grain Alliance that means the pizza meets four criteria — it features local grains in the dough, the toppings come from locally sourced ingredients, the pizza is baked in a wood-fired oven, and it's served alongside Maine craft beer.

"Our baking program and The Miller's Table are great ways for the community to taste and learn what we have here," Lambke said.

Since the start of the pandemic, Maine Grains increased its overall staffing by one-third, jumping from 15 employees in 2020 to 20 today.

"I'd say we've grown a hundred-fold since we first started 10 years ago," Lambke said, noting that Maine Grains has bought about 10 million pounds of grain since 2012. "We're big enough now to serve the whole grain flour needs for artisan bakers in the Northeast," Lambke said.

Grain growers in the state have seen their sales numbers rise as well. Maine Malt House in Mapleton has supplied Maine brewers and distillers with conventional quality barley since 2014. Maine Malt's director of production and sales, Jacob Buck, said sales of barley have grown steadily for five years now.

"We're starting to gain some good traction with our customers," said Buck. "We're highly optimistic about our business."

Factors like poor weather in other parts of the country and soaring transport costs have helped, Buck said. Last year's western United States barley crop was marred by drought, which threw off the barley's protein levels. And even if the western barley crop were stellar, the cost of shipping the grain to Maine has proven prohibitive for some of the state's brewers and distillers.

The fact that last year's barley crop in Maine was of "exceptional" quality, according to Buck, has helped bring Maine Malt more business this year.

MORE ORGANIC GRAIN FARMERS NEEDED

But while circumstances have been favorable recently for Maine grain growers and producers, the future is uncertain. To maintain the upward trajectory of its grains economy, the state still needs more farmers to start growing organic grains in the years to come, Lambke and others said.

"We're looking for the next generation of farmers who want to add grains to the crops they plant," Lambke said.

Flewelling has been in business with Aurora Farms since the late 1990s. She estimated that Maine has lost about half of its organic grain growers in the last five years, leaving just a "handful" still growing now.

Flewelling said grains have been losing field space to more lucrative potatoes for some time. Compounding the problem, grains can be hard to grow organically, and Maine growers have to compete with farmers in slightly different climates like New York, who can grow winter grains.

"We're potato land up here, and the money is not in grains for potato farmers," Flewelling said.

Maine grain farmers have also felt the effects of the labor shortage. "It's hard to find workers. I've been working harder physically than I ever have been," said Flewelling.

The spike in fuel costs this year has been another problem. Aurora's fuel costs have gone up 200 percent since last year, Flewelling said, adding that she can't just double her prices and expect her customers to cover the net increase.

Buck said he sees the trend of rising local barley sales continuing for a while, as barley farmers out West struggle to recover from their bad year and the war in Ukraine continues to force that country's grain prices upward.

Still, the problem looms: how to recruit more Maine farmers to plant grains?

"Only a handful of people right now in Maine are taking the time required to grow food grains," Buck said. "The question of the future of the grains economy is tricky. How much grain will the state want to produce going forward?"

"There are a lot of challenges. It's hard to be a grain grower," conceded Flewelling.

Lambke pointed again to high demand for organic grains, flours and grain products, as well as increasing consumer interest in heritage and specialty grains like farro, black barley, red fife wheat, spelt and rye berries, helping the market diversify beyond the usual oats, wheat and corn.

"The realization is, wow, there's a whole world of grains and flavor out there that we've missed because of monocropping," she said.

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Maine Wild Blueberry Sourdough Muffins

Recipe by Ellie Markovitch, from the Maine Grains website.

Yield: 12 muffins

2/3 cup sourdough starter — fed or discard (fermented from the fridge)

2/3 cup milk

1 large egg

1/4 cup oil

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 2/3 cups Maine Grains Organic Sifted All-Purpose Flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups Maine wild blueberries, fresh or frozen

Coarse sugar, optional

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Lightly grease 12 muffin tins or line them with muffin cups.

By hand or in a mixer, beat the sourdough starter, milk, egg, oil and granulated sugar together in a large bowl until all ingredients are well combined.

Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Add the combined dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir well.

Gently fold in the wild blueberries and stir until well distributed.

Fill the muffin tins 3/4 full of batter. Sprinkle the muffin tops with coarse sugar, if desired.

Bake for 20-25 minutes.