Maine Grains
Photo: Courtesy of Maine Grains

Building a Regional Grain Network

As described in “The Benefits of Regional Grain Networks,” grain networks benefit their communities in numerous ways. Initial actions in the evolution of a regional grain economy are often grassroots collaborations sparked by conversations, concerns about access to healthy foods, or entrepreneurial possibilities. The decisions are often replicable anywhere, despite the uniqueness of regions, local investors, and the degrees to which existing infrastructure enables the grain movement to secure a foothold. To aid emerging grain networks (wheat and other grains can be grown in almost every state), we’ve collected information that grain trailblazers have identified as components of a durable grain system.

The U.S. States that Produce the Most Wheat

Step 1: Identify Resources
Resources in your community may include a group of dedicated community members, an enterprising baker, an underutilized workforce, a research university, farmer know-how, or a funding opportunity.

For example, in 2012, when a former jail building came up for sale in Skowhegan, Maine, Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz took advantage of the opportunity to bring much-needed grain processing to the state. They converted the former jail to the Maine Grains gristmill, which has since helped create a market for local grains, supporting the farmers and many other grain businesses in the state.

Read more about the Maine Grains story here.

“We build the breads to tell the story of the farms”  -Blair Marvin, Elmore Mountain Bread

Step 2: Identify Stakeholders
Stakeholders are people willing to commit time and effort to building a grain network and maintaining it over time. Grain networks require a broad range of skills and abilities, so your stakeholders may include bakers, farmers, funders, university or school communities, or other community groups.

In the Skagit Valley in the early 2010s, for example, a group of bakers, farmers, and community members in collaboration with the Washington State University Bread Lab and the Port of Skagit came together with the goal of adding value to local agriculture. They decided to build a grain mill. In the words of co-founder and CEO Kevin Morse, Cairnspring Mills, this was “a collective effort by this community to create something that they all wanted and dreamed of.”

Step 3: Identify Initial Funding
The financial structure can be as important as participation and interest in building a grain network.  Early support adds legitimacy to the project and attracts additional sponsors. This may be in the form of a donation, a collaboration, or a partnership. You might start with a discussion with stakeholders and other resources to learn about local or regional funding opportunities, such as an economic development agency and forward-thinking businesses. Regional grain groups, like the Maine Grain Alliance, may have technical assistance grants, as might state agricultural departments or even the USDA. For a longer list of funding sources, see our Resources guide.

Step 4: Choose Your Seeds
Work with researchers, grain breeders, and local farmers, and pursue historical records to identify wheat and other grain varieties that succeed in your local and regional climates and soils. Your state’s land-grant funded college or university can be a good place to start looking for resources, as well as local farm organizations, 4H clubs, or even a local farmers’ market.

Step 5: Create Demand
Organize events that showcase the flavors and functionalities of the grains that thrive in the region, and engage the community in the project. Consider meet and greet occasions that introduce bakers and chefs to farmers growing unfamiliar varieties of wheat and other grains. Encourage farmers and consumers to take pride in the local grains they grow and use. You may also consider market streams for crop rotation products like beans and peas. For example, Maura Kilpatrick of Sofra Bakery shares where her local grains come from in signage on the pastry counter, and she says her customers appreciate seeing locally sourced products.

Step 6: Educate stakeholders, Consumers, and Funders
Develop educational materials (a website, brochure, etc.) to detail the benefits of a regional grain economy to stakeholders and to their communities. Help people understand the many aspects of a grain network, and how they can participate.

Inspired by the question “how did wheat become the enemy?” Jon Olinto and Tony Rosenfeld opened One Mighty Mill in 2018. They produce high quality, nutrient-dense flour, or “wheat you can eat”, from grains sourced from an organic farm in Linneus, Maine.7 Using mills made by New American Stone Mills founder Andrew Heyn, they produce freshly ground wheat flour for sale and in-house baking. Their goal is improved health for consumers and a revitalized local food system. Extensive community engagement is an energized component in fulfilling the company’s mission. Based in Lynn, Massachusetts, they are dedicated to supporting the community by hiring local residents and giving discounts to their neighbors, and supplying bagels made with whole-grain flour to local schools.

See more Mill Spotlights here.

Step 7: Meet demand
Look for gaps in the system and see what you can do to help ensure consistent supply.  Over time, a grain network will evolve and change, and it’s important to stay flexible.

For example, as Cairnspring Mills has grown, they’ve had to adapt and continue to collaborate across the grain network to keep the system in balance. Partnering with a local granary, for example, has enabled them to store, dry, and clean many grains before they’re received at the mill. Selling their lower-quality byproduct flour, called “mill-run,” to animal feed companies fulfilled a need for both partners when the commodity supply chain went dry during the pandemic.

Step 8: Manage Emerging Relationships
Relationships are key to a strong and sustainable network. These include in-kind sponsors, community leaders, county economic development agencies, university extensions, and potential funders. Organize opportunities for suppliers (farmers, millers) to introduce their products to buyers (bakers, chefs, brewers, and distillers) and funders, and to promote mutual benefits.

The Maine Grain Alliance organizes a Kneading Conference and Bread Fair every summer to bring together millers, bakers, farmers, brewers, oven-builders, and grain enthusiasts of every stripe. This event serves as both a connection point for people within the grain industry and a promotion of their products to consumers.

Step 9: Attend To Supporters
Cultivate sincere relationships based on mutual goals and philosophies and a spirit of shared discovery. Engage supporters with Bake Togethers or Cook Togethers, conferences, classes, workshops, meetings, and events.  Provide opportunities for supporters to learn more about the grain network and suggest unique ways of providing support.

For example, when Blair Marvin of Elmore Mountain Bread learned that parents in her community were buying her crusty loaves for themselves but not their children, she developed a sandwich loaf designed for the younger crowd and changed her delivery schedule to ensure it would be available when parents were doing their weekly shopping. To hear the full story, watch our interview with Blair Marvin.

Step 10: Identify Ongoing Support
As demand increases and supply chains shift, the need for new equipment may arise. Regional grain organizations or state-level agriculture departments may have grant funding available to support this kind of development, and local foundations or businesses might be willing to support specific items (an educational market, a class, or an outreach effort) over time.

See our Resources page for a list of possible funding sources and regional support organizations.