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Climate change is affecting farmers and global supply chain. Maine’s growing grain economy could help

Climate change is affecting farmers and global supply chain. Maine’s growing grain economy could help

This story is part our series “Climate Driven: A deep look at Maine’s response to climate change. One county at a..”

Sean O’Donnell started growing grains about 10 years ago at Rusted Rooster Farm, 45 minutes north of Skowhegan on the border of Somerset and Piscataquis counties. He began small and used grains as a cover crop to improve the soil’s health.

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He and his wife now own 150 acres of organic grain, including Red Fife Wheat, Winter Rye, and oats. That’s up from around 40 acres just five years ago. O’Donnell credits this growth, in part, to Maine’s burgeoning grain economy.

“It’s growing more and more. I don’t think I could do what I was doing 10 years ago, and that credit goes to the grain economy,” O’Donnell said.

The regional grain economy also provides a buffer against extreme fluctuations in prices, crop failures, and supply chain issues related to climate change.

Sean O’Donnell, Rusted Rooster Farm’s owner, and his family, several years ago.

“As we get thrown more and more severe weather, we need to learn how to have a successful crop in all conditions, and having that guaranteed market and decent profitability is huge to have that resilience,” O’Donnell said.

In fact, it’s already been put to the test by another global crisis. Many Maine consumers turned to Maine Grains, a local Skowhegan gristmill to supply their flour needs in the initial months of the coronavirus epidemic.

“Flour ran out of the shelves at grocery stores from industrial milling locations because there was a lag in big mills’ ability to keep up with consumer need and demand. That was a resilient moment for us, even just having the regional supply chain and infrastructure,” said Amber Lambke, co-founder and owner of Maine Grains. After purchasing an old Skowhegan jail and converting it into a gristmill, Lambke and Michael Scholz founded the business in 2012.

Maine Grains processes flours, oats and wheat berries. Products are sold across the state and northeast. The grains can also be used for local malting and brewing, animal feed, as well as seed markets.

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Maine Grains grist mill facility at Skowhegan in Maine, Somerset County

“Maine was considered The breadbasket of New England in the 19th century,” Lambke said. And, she said, Somerset County’s grain economy has deep historical roots.

At its peak in 1837 Somerset County produced 239,000 bushels per year of wheat, which was enough to feed over 100,000 people, Lambke stated.

“If you go back to the late 1800s in Somerset County and central Maine, you had all kinds of grist mills dotting the countryside that were taking locally grown grain and milling them for [local use],” said Tristan Noyes, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, a nonprofit focused on building the regional grain economy across the state.

Grain farmers from Aroostook County have been growing grain for hundreds of year, mostly as cover crops for their more profitable potato fields. But, as the Midwest became the dominant industry, grain production in Somerset County and central Maine has largely disappeared. The Maine Grain Alliance is trying to recover the milling infrastructure and much of the knowledge about how to grow grains.

During pollination of Emmer wheat. Richard Roberts, director at the Maine Grain Alliance Heritage Seed Restoration Project planted this variety of wheat in Somerset County as part the Alliance’s seed restore and grow out program.

Lambke and others founded the Alliance in 2007 when they started the Kneading Conference. This annual gathering of grain farmers and bakers, brewers and millers, as well as the general public, is held each summer in Skowhegan.

The Somerset Grist Mill in Maine Grains is one among two local gristmills that focus on organic grains. The other is Aurora Mills, Aroostook Co.

All told, Maine grows about 50,000 acres of oats, barley and common wheat annually, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s most recent census figures. Noyes stated that organic production is increasing in Maine, although it is still a small percentage. That’s helped create new markets and an increasing demand for sustainable, locally grown grains.

“What has been enabled by mills like Aurora Mills and Maine Grains in central Maine is that there is no longer just the one commodity market to which those grains can be sold, they can be sold into these local markets,” Noyes said.

“People really like the idea of eating local. If you create a local economy for grain, with relationships between farmers, processors, and other farmers, you can stabilize prices, and provide some predictability to farmers in terms both of volume and price. [that they can sell],” said Ellen Mallory, a University of Maine Extension professor in the School of Food and Agriculture. She’s also on the board of Maine Grain Alliance and works with farmers to help them meet the new economic opportunities with grain production.

Large-scale agricultural production is more efficient than smaller-scale operations. However, it is less able to adapt quickly to major global crises as local markets can. For example, gasoline has been affected by the war in Ukraine. fertilizer prices, disrupting food supply chain.

“That’s part of the downfall of modern ag and the supply chain problems we’re seeing. You’re getting a lot more value by staying local because you’re supporting that resilience,” O’Donnell said. “The larger supply chain is gonna have its problems when it has its problems, which has been very apparent these last few years.”

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Somerset County wheat crop. Richard Roberts was involved in the Maine Grain Alliance’s seed restoration program.

As severe weather events related climate change become more common, it is becoming more important to have a greater level of economic resilience, biodiversity, ecological health, and strength in rural communities.

There are already examples of how Maine’s regional grain economy can support farmers amid uncertainty from a warming climate, Noyes said. Noyes cites winter grains that are planted in the fall and go dormant in winter under a snowpack layer until they re-grow in the spring. Several years ago there was an uncharacteristic thaw in the middle of the winter that killed a farmer’s entire grain crop. Noyes suggested that better storage equipment could have helped in such a situation.

“If you have the infrastructure and you have some good years, then during the bad years you may be able to keep your grain for longer periods of time and help to mitigate that,” Noyes said.

The Maine Grain Alliance has been part, for two years, of a $200,000 effort that helps seven major farms in Maine with post-harvest grain handling. This includes Rusted Rooster Farm. It provides the equipment necessary to store and manage the grains.

The Alliance is also thinking ahead about what varieties of grains may be best suited for Maine’s future climate through Its Seed Restoration Program.

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Richard Roberts


Richard Roberts loaded a wheat harvest in his truck in Somerset County as part the Maine Grain Alliance’s Seed Restoration and Grow Out program.

Richard Roberts from Soland, Maine is the leader of the program. He plants small plots of half- or quarter-acre in Somerset County and throughout the state.

“Last year we had 40 different varieties of grain growing in about 4.5 acres around Maine,” Roberts said. He doesn’t need much space – he works with local farmers, utilizing small plots on their land to grow out the varieties and see how they do in Maine’s climate. Noyes believes that Maine’s creation of a biodiverse supply of seeds will help protect the food system from climate changes.

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Richard Roberts holds the Buckwheat that he harvested from Blue Ribbon Farm, Somerset County as part the Maine Grain Alliance’s seed restoration/grow out program.

“The grain we’re getting from Scandinavia and Northern Europe has a climate more suited toward what looks like ours is going to become. It looks like it’s going to be wetter here,” Roberts said.

He grows out the seed to commercially viable quantities, and passes it along to larger grain operations, like Rusted Rooster Farm, which allows Sean O’Donnell to diversify his businesses.

“When you’re diversified enough, [money] just it manages to trickle in one way or another,” O’Donnell said.

“From an economic perspective of farms and farming, having a diversified operation buffers you against extremes,” Mallory said.

She said building out Maine’s grain varieties has also had a positive impact on increasing organic grain production in the state and creating consumer interest and demand.

“The thing that the local food movement has done for sustainable agriculture and the role of agriculture in climate change is that it’s really raised people’s interest levels and their knowledge,” Mallory said.

The power of Maine’s regional grain economy, lies in community, connection and value, Noyes said. When the focus of purchasing grain is shifted from price alone to a range of factors, including flavor, sustainability, soil health, and community wellbeing, consumer loyalty and engagement is strengthened. The greater the interest and engagement in Maine’s grain economy, the greater the possibilities for adaptation.

“There’s the environmental and economic sustainability, but there’s a community sustainability to this whole thing that’s probably the most important part,” Noyes said. “The people who are part of the regional grain economy know one another, they’ve learned from one another, they talk to one another about the challenges that they face. When things change for the good or the bad, having those strong networks of people in place are one of the foundational aspects of what will make the future of the food system sustainable.”

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