Farmers' experiments may make Maine 'New England's Bread Basket' again

6:55 PM, Jul 13, 2011   |    comments
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Winter wheat growing tall in an experimental field in Farmington.
Related Links
  • University of Maine Cooperative Extension Bread Wheat Information Web Page
  • FARMINGTON, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- It is reminiscent of a scene from America's Heartland, waves of golden wheat dancing in the summer breeze, but the setting is not Kansas or Iowa, but the western Maine town of Farmington.

    The field, located across busy Route 2 from the Sandy River, had sat unused for years.  Two and a half acres and full of weeds, that is until local farming legend Bussie York rolled the dice and planted a crop of winter wheat with guidance provided by the folks at the University of Maine Cooperative extension.

    "I really didn't expect anywhere near the results," admitted York.  "We won't know the whole picture until after we get the combine through it and after we get it into the grain bin, through the cleaners, and back to our sales when we market it, so we won't know the whole story to that, but for right now, I am pretty enthusiastic that it could be a reasonably successful crop here in the state."

    York planted the seeds in September after cultivating the land a few times.  He added some manure and a shot of nitrogen to fertilize the crop, but has done little else to the plot of land since.  The wheat sprouted up fast, keeping the weeds in check, and in a couple weeks he'll harvest the wheat to see what he's got to work with.

    "It is just an opportunity, that's all," he said.  "I don't think it is going to be a major crop here on the farm, but it certainly could be another sector of the farm that utilizes the land."

    Until the mid-1800's Maine was known as 'New England's Bread Basket', though truth be told, many other states and counties claimed the tittle as well.  Trains made moving commodities, such as wheat, much easier, allowing large scale agriculture operations in the West - where the climate was more suitable for growing wheat and space was abundant - to dominate the market, forcing Maine farmers to grow other crops to make a living.

    "The market now is for a local product," explained Ellen Mallory, a sustainable agriculture specialist with the Cooperative Extension.  She says the question now is can farmers grow enough wheat that has the amount of protein in it to be used for making bread and flour to supply the local demand.

    "There are definitely a lot of questions that we have to answer," stated Mallory.  "We are trying to look at what varieties do well, for yield but also for protein, and other quality characteristics, things that will make them suitable for bread flour."

    The Cooperative Extension has teamed up with a couple of farmers around the state to grow different varieties of wheat, and has several test plots growing on their farm on the University of Maine campus in Orono as well.

    Right now in Aroostook County, growing wheat for bread flour is more than just an experiment, it is a growing business.  Where farmers once grew wheat to feed animals and as a rotational crop between plantings of potatoes, they are now planting thousands of acres to be milled and sold to local bakeries.

    Many farms do not have the machinery and infrastructure in place to grow, harvest and dry wheat, but if the early returns are any indication of the demand for more locally grown food options, those investments may not be far away.

    The initial success of this experiment has lead to the development of a new grist mill being built in Skowhegan to grind wheat into flour, joining one already in operation in Houlton.

    "For wheat, we are on the bottom end of the learning curve," explained York, "and we will answer a lot of questions by trial and error."

     

     

     

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