On Saturday, my husband, Clif, and I went to Skowhegan, Maine, to the Bread Fair, which is part of the Kneading Conference presented by the Maine Grain Alliance. The first Kneading Conference was held in 2007, and according to their website, the conference “began with a group of Skowhegan residents who were motivated by the need to address wheat production as an important cornerstone of a growing local food movement.” Right now, most of our wheat comes from places such as Kansas or North Dakota, but it wasn’t always this way. Until the mid-1800s, wheat production in Somerset County—Skowhegan is the county seat—fed over 100,000 people each year, and central Maine was known as one of New England’s breadbaskets. Now, “less than 1% of Maine’s wheat demand is actually grown in Maine.”
Those from away, who associate Maine with the rocky coastline, could be forgiven for wondering how in the world Maine could have produced so much wheat. While it’s true that our coastline, as a rule, has thin soil, this is not the case with central Maine, which is farming and dairy country, and it is especially not the case with Aroostook County, where so many potatoes are grown. In Maine, there is a huge swatch of land with deep, rich soil, and although our growing season is shorter than it is in other states, it is certainly long enough to grow an abundance of food, including various grains. And, we have a trump card that might be especially important as we deal with the ravages of climate change—abundant rainfall, at least for now. But more about that later.
A bit more history about the Kneading Conference, which again, was taken from their website: “2011 was a milestone year: we received nonprofit status as the Maine Grain Alliance; we helped organize the first Kneading Conference West in Mount Vernon, Washington; and we purchased a portable wood-fired oven to use for school and community educational workshops and for fundraising.”
For the past few years, I have wanted to go to the Bread Fair, but something always came up, and I wasn’t able to go. This year, however, the calendar was clear, and off Clif and I went, north to Skowhegan, which, as it happens, was where my mother and father grew up.
Any kind of event that features lots of food vendors in one place, an event where you can go from table to table, sampling their wares, is my kind of event, and I had a great time trying various bread and pastries. The Bread Fair was rather small, with about 50 vendors, and there were hundreds of people rather than thousands and thousands, the way there are at the Common Ground Country Fair. In truth, the smaller size of the Bread Fair was much more to my liking than the jammed Common Ground Fair. At the Bread Fair, it was easy to talk to the vendors, buy this and that, and find a place to sit down to enjoy what you just purchased. And while the Bread Fair was small, it was lively, with a nice mix of bakers, crafters, and informational tables along with some vendors offering professional products.
So what did Clif and I eat? I’m almost a little embarrassed to list how much we ate: Sour dough bread from Borealis Bread; a chocolate croissant from Snowy Hill Bakery; and from Good Bread a pretzel that tasted as though it had been boiled but wasn’t—I was told it was cooked “the way it’s done in Germany.” A cupcake and a cream horn from The Bankery as well as a slice of pizza baked in Maine Grain Alliance’s wood-fired oven. Another pretzel from another vendor, The Bread Shack. Not surprisingly, by afternoon Clif and I started to hit a bread wall after a morning of carbs, but readers, all of it was very, very good.
In my next post, I’ll focus on some of the people I met at the Bread Fair, but I’d like to conclude with an idea I touched on earlier in this piece. That is, with climate change, the resurgence of growing wheat in Maine can only be a good thing. The withering droughts in the United States spell nothing but bad news for food prices in the upcoming years. It makes sense to grow food in places such as central Maine where the soil is good and where there is abundant rainfall. The same is true for livestock and poultry, but this is a piece about wheat and bread, so I’ll leave that topic for another time.
No one, of course, knows what the future will bring. Maybe the drought will be a one-time event, and next year will be a better growing season for America’s bread basket. But maybe it won’t. According to climate scientists, droughts, in some parts of the world, are to become more and more common as the planet heats up. If those scientists are right, then in the upcoming years, Mainers, and perhaps even those in other New England states, will be very grateful that there was “a group of Skowhegan residents who were motivated by the need to address wheat production as an important cornerstone of a growing local food movement.”
Maine just might become a bread basket once more.