During the 2016 Kneading Conference in Skowhegan (Maine, United States), I volunteered to help with setting up the event, assisting presenters, and baking pizzas during the Bread Fair. At the event, I met Amber Lambke, then Executive Director of Maine Grain Alliance (which organizes the Kneading Conference), CEO of Maine Grains, and a leader in community development and local food sustainability.
Amber communicated an engaged vision about how grain, flour, and bread can change our relationships with each other and influence the world we inhabit. This conversation with Amber Lambke addresses her vision and mission through her work in revitalizing a regional grain economy in North-Eastern United States.
Amber founded Maine Grains in Skowhegan in 2012, with her business partner, Michael Scholz. Maine Grains’s mission is to revive a regional grain economy in North-Eastern United States. Maine Grains sources Maine-grown wheat, spelt, buckwheat, oat, and other ancient varieties of grain, and processes stone ground organic flour. It sells grains and flour between Maine and New York City, to artisanal bakeries, national food stores, whole foods store and restaurants, colleges and institutions, and breweries.
As a mill, Maine Grains fosters new relationships between farmers, bakers, brewers, and malters. However, this interview with Amber testifies that stone-milling is just a tangible proof of Maine Grains’s deeper purpose.
Amber came to milling from a community development perspective, rather than from a farming or baking background.
“I am a home baker, and by no means an expert,” Amber said. “I enjoy baking, and I appreciate good bread. About ten years ago, when I started doing this work in the bread and grain scene, I was just a bread connoisseur who felt the lack of good bread in my community. We would drive long distances to stock up on bread and put in the freezer, all the while trying to perfect some artisanal home baking techniques. I prefer whole grain and sourdough breads, and I am excited to be part of cultivating those things at the local level.”
Amber became involved on the social and community scene of Skowhegan when she moved to the area in 2001. Through that involvement, she met with people interested in all things bread, from growing grain to building ovens. She was a volunteer in creating the first Kneading Conference in 2007, which she described as the beginning of her formal work in bread and grain:
“It came about at a time when our town, Skowhegan, was gaining some momentum in organizing itself to revitalize its downtown. I was involved in some volunteering efforts, to help grow and expand our farmers’ market. The time was ripe for ideas that helped to accentuate our assets and the things that were special about rural Maine.
“In 2007, Albie Barden, one of the founders of Maine Wood Heat, came to me. He had just returned from San Francisco, where he had been teaching wood-fired oven building at Camp Bread, an event put on by the Bread Bakers’ Guild of America. Camp Bread had turned away a large number of people, and Albie realized that if he just took the leftovers and brought them to Maine, he could stay put and teach right here in his home community. Albie is sought after to travel around the world to teach oven building to bakers and people who care about good flour, but he had not focused a lot of time and attention doing that here at home.
“Albie asked if I would help in pulling together a volunteer group that could think about bringing together farmers, millers, bakers, and oven builders for what became the first Kneading Conference. I was the group’s first committee chair.”
This volunteer group was seminal in creating a new grain-based movement in Maine. The movement triggered the establishment of Maine Grain Alliance (Amber Lambke was the first Executive Director, before leaving the position to Tristan Noyes in 2016), a not-for-profit organization that oversees the Kneading Conference, the Bread Fair, as well as educational programs and some technical assistance in seed-saving work.
A Grain Epiphany
The Kneading Conference was a major source of inspiration and motivation for Skowhegan grain activists like Amber and Michael. However, Amber recalled another specific moment when she realized that grain was to become a core focus of her social engagement. It was her grain “epiphany,” as she described it:
“The epiphany for me was learning that in the history of our county, Somerset County, here in Maine, in 1837, we produced 239,000 bushels of wheat, at 60 pounds (27 kilos) to the bushel. That’s enough to feed 100,000 people! There are only 15,000 people that live in the county now. The epiphany for me was that at one time we were growing a whole lot of grain. Back when it was hand-harvested and horse-plowed. That was our county alone; all of the other surrounding counties were also producing a significant amount of grain.
“It made me realize that the question is not whether we can grow grain in Maine, it’s how do we do it and how do we keep this knowledge alive and well.
“Grain growing was not obsolete in Maine. It was used for crop rotation. But farmers weren’t selling grain. There has been grain grown for feed, but less so for food. We wanted to convince farmers to grow grain for food but needed to figure out how that grain was going to be processed.
“My business partner and I started traveling to see any possible mill that we could find in the North-East. On these travels, I saw that the infrastructure was very fragile: often, there would be an older farmer who had designed some infrastructure, to clean or mill grains, but on a very small scale. Many of these farmers told me: ‘If I die tomorrow, no one knows how to run what I’ve set up here.’ The infrastructure looked very fragile, and the processing piece of the grain economy was missing.