Colby food supplier discusses sustainability and local challenges

After instituting a new dining services partnership with the Bon Appetit Management Company, the College has begun to receive many locally-sourced ingredients. Among the sourcers is Maine Grains, based in Skowhegan.

Echo: What is a general overview of Maine Grains and its products?

Amber Lanke: Maine Grains opened in September 2012. We specialize in sourcing locally grown organic grains to make stone milled flour and rolled oats. We now work with over 36 different farmers to source our grain, which includes wheat, oats, rye, spelt, corn, buckwheat, and heritage grains. We distribute our Products from Maine to New York City, to bakeries, breweries, restaurants, natural food stores, colleges and institutions, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s).

Echo: How was the idea for Maine Grains conceived?

AL: The idea for Maine Grains was conceived at the first ever Kneading Conference in 2007, organized by a grassroots group from Skowhegan whose aim was to gather farmers, millers, bakers, and woodfired oven builders to explore how we might reinvigorate Maine’s lost grain economy.  At the first conference, we learned about Maine’s rich history growing in abundance of grain for the region.  Without rebuilding the necessary grain processing and milling infrastructure, the revival of a grain economy in Central Maine would not be possible.  The Kneading Conference has gone on to become an annual event, in its 11th year this year.  The gathering has been a key driver in connecting the dots within the grains ‘cluster’ to spur growth, entrepreneurship, and the re-localization of grains.

Echo: What are your goals for the company?

AL: [To] be a leading partner in building a regenerative economy in Central Maine by providing the milling of healthful, exceptional grains using a unique traditional stone process, and selling widely in order to support the growth of Somerset County’s local food hub.

Echo: What have been some of the challenges of running the business?

AL: Not only is building and growing a new business difficult, but we are rebuilding an industry that was nearly lost in the Northeast.  Piecing together the necessary knowledge to run a grain mill has required travel to destinations both near and as far away as Denmark, Iceland, and Canada.  There are no formal resources for learning the traditional art of stone milling in the US anymore.  Small to midsize grain cleaning and milling infrastructure has become an anomaly in the face of massive, highly consolidated industrial-scale white flour milling operations.  We had to piece together a knowledge base one resource at a time.  We have built a strong network of mentors and supporters that can help us become a sustainable business.

Echo: What are the Maine Grain Alliance and the Kneading Conference, and how do they supplement the mission of Maine Grains?

AL: The Maine Grain Alliance (MGA) is a nonprofit organization run by community volunteers and grain leaders across the state.  It organizes a flagship event annually called the Kneading Conference and Artisan Bread Fair which gathers people from all over the world, to share, learn, and celebrate the craft of artisan bread making with the local grains.  Maine Grains, Inc., our flour mill, was inspired by and partners with the educational nonprofit work run by MGA.

Echo: What are you most proud of about the business?

AL: I am most proud that we have tackled a difficult project one step at a time, that we are supporting Maine Farms in growing marketable organic grains, and that we provide a place to work where 11 employees can make healthful food that improves the lives of bakers, brewers, and eaters across the northeast!

Echo: Anything else?

AL: Maine Grains is extremely proud to count to Colby College among one of the first institutions to adopt the use of locally grown grains in a college dining program.