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.
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.
Central Maine seems an odd competitor, let alone winner. Asheville has a hipster vibe, and more breweries per capita than any other city in the country. But the couple got to Maine first because it was closer. Now, the two men live in nearby Skowhegan, and have jobs in the local food movement. LeVine is a miller, and Lane works in organic vegetable production on a diversified farm. The reorganization of their personal lives around sustainable agriculture resembles the renovation of their new hometown, and the advent of food enterprises housed at The Somerset Grist Mill, in the former county jail.
Skowhegan is a cookie cutter of inland New England’s long, hard times. This isn’t quaint and coastal, humming along on waves of tourism-reinforced nostalgia. The town of 8500 is the county seat of Somerset County, and people work at the New Balance shoe factory, or in the timber industries, or they don’t work. Jobs in the wood and paper mills have been disappearing for decades.
Yet within this tough socio-economic clime there’s a network of people with enough financial security to try to leverage change for others. In the early 2000s, grassroots efforts to sculpt the small downtown took shape. Community members started a farmers’ market, and applied to be part of the state version of the national Main Street program, which gave them access to revitalization funds.
Amber Lambke worked hard on those initiatives. She’d settled in the town with her husband during his medical residency, and didn’t like watching other young couples leave. Late in 2006, she invited a group of community-minded folks over for a potluck, to consider ways to make Skowhegan better. They hatched a plan for a weekend bread and oven conference.
The idea seemed perfect. Within the rural surrounds of this small town, there were plenty of bakers and oven experts to run workshops. Plus, during the Civil War, the state was known as the breadbasket for Union troops; maybe they could update that history and answer requests for local flour that had been surfacing with the rising locavore movement.
The first Kneading Conference was held in July 2007, under pop-up tents in a church parking lot. Now, more than 200 people come to the State Fairgrounds for two days at the end of every July, and the place assumes a distinct hum of bread-directed passions. Three or four domed ovens sit parked at separate stations, marking classrooms where people pay rapt attention to teachers like Richard Miscovich and Ciril Hitz from Johnson & Wales in Providence, and pizza aficionado Andrew Janjigian, from Cook’s Illustrated magazine. It’s like a family reunion for bread, one focused on learning as much as you can about your bread baking cousins and celebrating the family tree, from seed to mill to baguette, croissant, and even tortilla.
Most workshops are drop-in but one of them takes full commitment. The production woodfired baking class is designed to help serious bakers experience baking in a professional setting. Participants prep and bake all day Thursday and Friday to fill the racks Saturday morning for the Artisan Bread Fair, drawing 3000 visitors.
In addition to classes, the Kneading Conference showcases the interconnected work of farmers, millers and bakers, painting portraits of how people are redeveloping these industries at a local level. Miller and baker Don Lewis’s keynote speech in 2008 helped define the grassroots efforts taking shape in Skowhegan. (Full disclosure: The keynote speaker at this year’s conference was me.)
Lewis described the Wild Hive Community Grain Project, and building up a grain supply in New York’s Hudson Valley. He achieved that by milling flour and selling breads and sweets at farmers markets. Milling was the lever required to get growers to plant grains; if locals wanted to keep the bread and grains groove going all year, they needed a mill.
Amber Lambke and baker Michael Scholz set out to find one. Friends since high school, they went on a road trip, visiting every mill in the Northeast and trying to find one willing to open up shop in Skowhegan. The few millers they met said no, thank you. There was no one to continue their own operations, let alone initiate new outlets. So Lambke and Scholz decided to go into the milling business.
There was no model to follow. Beginning in the late 1800s, mills and malthouses—the intermediate infrastructure for grain handling—disappeared into the grain belts. And large roller mills and milling centers replaced stone mills situated in locales. Prohibition pushed out malthouses, and animal feed mills lasted the longest, until the 1940s and through to the 1960s. This is part of the reason why grains are the last ingredients to get re-localized.
Since anonymous wheat for flour and barley for malt sell at commodity prices, there’s not much financial incentive to invest in these key pieces of infrastructure. Beyond mills and malthouses, there’s a lot of storage, cleaning, and processing equipment that has to come back online. Crop knowledge, seed varieties, and cultural practices need to be developed for regions that haven’t grown grains in 100 years.
Selling grains has thin profit margins, even for large acreage farms in the grain belts. Despite these hurdles, people are getting into the grain business. Without the efficiencies of scale, and struggling to compete with generic grains, small mills have to be creative about funding, and minimize debt.
Lambke and Scholz built their enterprise slowly, cultivating capital from a diverse stream of lenders and investors, including Slow Money Maine, individuals, and online fundraising. Based on projected job creation, they received money through the Community Development Block Grant program.
Patience was the name of the game. The county commissioners rejected their proposal for the jail at first, hoping to sell it to a more obvious business, like a restaurant. But Lambke and Sholz finally purchased the property in the summer of 2009. Transforming the jail into the mill took three years and $1.5 million. Maine Grains launched in September 2012.
This story sounds like it is going to be about two self-made gung-ho entrepreneurs. Not so. Food and farming are about our connections to each other and the land. A baker needs a miller, and a miller needs a farmer. A mill-to-be needs steady-eyed dreamers, and money to put bones on those dreams. Once the dreams have a home, more hands come into play. In the case of the Somerset Grist Mill, the first extra person was a high school junior, Sonya Fox.
The jail was just as it had been left. The walls had graffiti, and the rooms had boxes with people’s belongings. “I found a hospital bracelet that was my cousin’s,” says Fox. “That was pretty weird.”
Other people were, and are, bothered by the fact that the building was once a jail. They think there are ghosts, but Fox, who is 22, doesn’t. She does everything in the building, from painting to cutting holes in the walls and floors, to getting and keeping the equipment running.
“I learned how to do the maintenance on the machines, pretty much anything in there I can run,” says Fox. “It’s just learn as you go, all just nuts and bolts that have to go together someway.”
At home, she is fixing up an ‘86 Chevy short box for her son. He’s three years old and she wants the machine fully restored by the time he can drive. When she needed to put the cab in place, she called up Eric LeVine to help. He came right over without even asking what she needed, proving, she says, what a strong bond you get on the job.
“They’re real friends, not just people you work with,” Fox says of her co-workers. She wasn’t thinking long-term when she started at the mill, but now loves her work and can’t imagine leaving. Her friends have jobs that make them dread going to bed on Sunday nights.
LeVine loves his job, too. He knows every machine and process in the building, and he’s training people, and started marketing, too. He spent the two weeks before Thanksgiving at the Boston Public Market running a stall for Maine Grains. The opportunity to meet some of the bakers and chefs who use the products he mills was fun, and wildly different from the first job he got–at Cumberland Farms–after he had migrated to Skowhegan.
“Working overnights you see the worst of the worst. I wasn’t getting defeated by any of it. I knew there had to be something more than I was seeing,” he says. The silos caught his eye as they went up outside the old jail, and he went and investigated. “I didn’t even know what a grist mill was but the story captured me. I felt like something was about to happen.”
Something was happening: a farmers market every Saturday in the parking lot. A farm-to-table café. A multi-farm CSA that aggregated its product streams in a part of the structure, and a knitting store that took up residence there as well. LeVine offered to help as a volunteer just to get his foot in the door. The mill then hired him for eight hours a week. Now he’s full-time and really blooming. Fridays and Saturdays he runs pizza night at Bigelow Brewing. The dough is made from spent brewing grains and Maine Grains flour, and his topping combinations are as colorful and wide-open as his new life.
“I thought I’d slow down by moving here but I’m going three times as fast as I ever did and loving every minute,” he says. “This is more than a job. It’s a lifestyle choice to be in the local foods movement.”
The novelties spur new pursuits, from milling to cheffing pizza, and LeVine is taking root in Skowhegan, buying a home soon. He’d love to see a community oven in the center of town, a place for people to bring and bake their loaves. He gets to dream and he gets to do; this expansive capacity is as true for him as it is for his new hometown.
Economic development as it has played out here is not traditional, but the style is proving admirable. The USDA Rural Development office in Maine asked Lambke to speak at their employee appreciation event.
“She understands and has in place a midsized, very successful food hub,” says state director Virginia Manuel. “She’s purchased grains from about 24 Maine farms, and is looking beyond the state for market opportunities. She really is a model we point to.” To wit: in 2016, with 11 employees, Maine Grains processed 700 tons of grains and 4,000 pounds of “run-of-the-mill” donations (The first 60 seconds of milling are not perfect, but are fine for making things like muffins. These donations go to emergency feeding programs and schools.) Sales doubled in 2016 and are expected to double again in the next two years. In 2017, Maine Grains will invest another $500,000 in staffing and equipment.
Lambke finds resources to support the mill near and far. This summer she traveled to Iceland, to investigate ways to take advantage of shipping opportunities from Eimskip, a company that brings goods to Portland, and has empty ships to fill on the way back. Lambke met with potential clients for grain by-products, like oat hulls for livestock bedding.
Closer to home, Maine Grains partnered with the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, which applied for a grant from USDA Rural Development to purchase oat de-hulling equipment and lease it to the mill. Stretching investment across a mesh of different parties makes fiscal sense. The economic spiderweb makes this project strong and sustaining, says Gus Schumacher of the Wholesome Wave foundation.
“The mill is embedded in the community,” he continues, and the process began long before the grains effort. Wholesome Wave helped Skowhegan innovate in improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The foundation gave a grant for doctors to write prescriptions for fresh produce to be used at the farmers’ market. Building bridges between businesses, like the prescriptions to help patients and to link doctors and farmers, gives a good idea legs. Does the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments need to be involved in oat processing? No matter. It works.
The Maine Grain Alliance (MGA) is the non-profit organization that has emerged to support the Kneading Conference, as well as year-round grains education and development work. Lambke stepped down last year as executive director, making room for a person who seems born to fill this position, Tristan Noyes.
Noyes links the organization to Aroostook County, aka “the County,” a vast area of prime farm country that encompasses the state’s northern portion. The County is where he grew up, and where he farms organic lettuce with his brother. Potatoes are the main crop, generally grown conventionally and sold on large contracts to the frozen potato industry. Farmers grow oats and barley in rotation, to help the soil and the plants, but, once harvested, these grains usually leave farms all at once in big trucks headed for commodity markets, often in Canada.
While Maine Grains seems a better market for such crops, growers can’t just switch to selling small quantities of grain throughout the year. There are harvest and storage considerations, and the MGA just received a grant from the Maine Technology Institute to study how to address those issues.
“One of the substantial bottlenecks in accessing the markets to artisan bread and beer is storage,” says Noyes. The feasibility study will look at technologies around the world that could work during Maine’s humid summers and brutal winters. The proposal is for four separate organic facilities. “If we can create these facilities, that’s going to increase production of grains especially on the organic level. The market is there for barley, wheat and flint corn, but you need to build the workarounds specific to climate, season, and each different grain.”
One Portland business demonstrates the demand. Tortilleria Pachanga can’t find enough organic flint corn. Craft brewers are curious about local craft malt, but steering an ocean-liner-like commodity malt production system toward the making of a craft product is not easy. You wouldn’t know about the obstacles without the MGA illustrating the work of rebuilding a regional grain economy. A recent event in this category was a field-to-glass tour held by the Maine Farmland Trust at Oxbow Blending & Bottling. Joel Alex from Blue Ox Malthouse put a face on malting, and the brewer and Noyes covered the other jobs that go into each barrel of beer.
Another bridge between Maine farmers and the wider world is Aimee Good, who just started marketing grains in New York City. She also grew up on an Aroostook potato farm. She farms a small acreage of grains organically and remotely, long determined to keep connected to her rural roots. Building markets in New York City for her fellow Mainers really fits her convictions. “I love telling people what the mill means to Maine farmers,” says Good. “The deep urban and deep rural communities need each other.”
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, CEO of Goodwill Industries in Northern New England, travels throughout the Northeast for work, and lives in Somerset County. These experiences give her many windows on the region.
“I think we all need to be sure that advancement and growth are not restricted to the city,” says Roosevelt. The mill “is not just about making money. The message is that we live together and we can create beauty and goodness. We can create an economy that makes a good life for everyone.”
In other words, economy is community. Decentralizing food production makes visible all the people and processes it takes to eat and drink. For grains, there’s a village in every pint and every loaf. It’s easy to get excited about the product, and admire the baker who got a nice dark crust on a hearth-baked baguette. Skowhegan, however, is toasting everyone in the chain, all the farmers, millers, maltsters, bakers and brewers. Bread is medicine, and the community is taking its doses nicely.