Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.
Amber Lambke, co-founder and CEO of Skowhegan-based Maine Grains, processes grains for wholesale and retail sale, with 19 employees and annual sales of $2.3 million. But that’s only part of her impact.
She and business partner Michael Scholz converted a vacant county jail for the grist mill. To connect farmers, millers and bakers, she helped launch the Kneading Conference, Maine Artisan Bread Fair and Maine Grain Alliance. She’s been active in helping redevelop Skowhegan, with the Miller’s Table cafe, Crooked Face Creamery, the Good Crust and other businesses.
In the past year, Lambke launched what may be her biggest undertaking yet, acquiring an adjacent property that will allow for expanded Maine Grains operations, demonstration kitchen, farmers market and, in a second phase, entrepreneurs’ space and affordable apartments. In a conversation with Mainebiz at the Miller’s Table cafe, she talked about Maine Grains and the surrounding area.
Mainebiz: At the time you launched Maine Grains in 2012, what was the state of Maine’s grain growing operations?
Amber Lambke: Infrastructure was the missing piece. Farmers were growing ‘cover crops’ like rye and oats but didn’t see much of a market for them. There were no food-grade markets for these crops. In northern Maine, a lot of it was going to Canada at a very low price. We needed machinery to take out the weed seeds; quality was a problem. We saw the food movement changing things. Farmers markets have rules that you must produce or grow the food locally, yet bakers were allowed to sell banana bread. There was an awakening among the food movement.
MB: How did you convince farmers to grow more grain?
AL: One way was through dairy farmers. An organic dairy needs organic grain. Not only that but dairy cows produce a lot of nitrogen and grain sucks up nitrogen, so they go hand-in-hand. So we were saying, ‘OK, grains may be more economically grown in the Midwest, but they’re part of the ecological cycle. They should not be lost.’ Now it’s part of the wider conversation about soil health, and we’re now connecting globally with people doing the same thing in Georgia, Iran and the UK.
MB: How has Maine Grains grown since 2012?
AL: We’re now in the process of buying a third milling machine. It took us a couple of years to set up wholesale routes to
bakeries, but we’re now mainstream. Within the past two years, we’ve gotten into 175-plus Hannaford supermarkets, plus markets in southern New England. We’ve been on Martha Stewart’s program. We won a 2021 Good Food Award.
MB: What was the impact of COVID?
AL: Early on, there was a real flour shortage. Going into COVID we were 90% wholesale, 10% retail sales. But when brewers closed and bakeries closed, that changed. Our online orders soared. In a matter of weeks, we were more like 50/50 wholesale to retail. We expanded to three shifts to pack retail bags. We were getting 180 orders a day and at one point we had a backup of 3,000 orders. People were home cooking and baking. It was a moment for flour.
Now, wholesale has rebounded, but we’re still getting more online orders than before COVID. We never closed during COVID. We masked up and held outdoor meetings, and we all remained healthy.
MB: How many farms do you work with?
AL: We’re now at 45 farms. We have a network throughout Maine, but also the Northeast, including Vermont and parts of New York. Over the next decade we’re hoping to develop more growers in Maine. Through the Maine Grain Alliance, we’re helping farmers get grants and build infrastructure and in general helping farmers get more involved and engaged. We think the cost of local grain will become more competitive, especially as infrastructure, inflation and supply chain have become issues.
One of the farming groups we’ve worked with is the Somali-Bantu community. They grow by hand, with traditional cropping systems, often planting corn with vegetables under them. There are more than 200 Somali-Bantu farmers [in the Lewiston/Auburn area] and they sell surplus corn, mostly flint corn used for cornmeal.
MB: How has the Kneading Conference grown?
AL: We took a hiatus last year and will be hybrid this year. It’s a large event for the baking community, and there’s more international presence now. We started it with Albie Barden, owner of Maine Wood Heat, who basically said, ‘We need more of a conversation between farmers, millers and bakers.’ We’ve now founded the Maine Grain Alliance, which is run by Tristan Noyes and offers baking education, heritage seed resources and has funds it disperses through grants.
We cap off the Kneading Conference with the Maine Artisan Bread Fair, which includes samples and related products. This year it will be at the Skowhegan Fair Grounds on July 30.
MB: From an investment side, you’ve talked before about ‘slow investment.’ How does that work?
AL: Initially, we worked with Slow Money Maine, which was founded by Bonnie Rukin and helped entrepreneurs get networked and find mentors. The goal was creative, patient solutions, features that might include no paybacks or interest payments in the first years. That got us on the radar of Coastal Enterprises. We were able to get $600,000 in grant funding. We worked with Somerset Economic Development Corp. and local help. We had help from the Sewall Foundation and Quimby Family Foundation. CEI became an equity investor in 2016. In 2023, we will start paying back investors.
MB: You formed Land & Furrow LLC to buy an adjacent parcel and now have plans to redevelop the property.
AL: We bought the property next door from Skowhegan Economic Development Corp. and we plan to build two buildings in two phases. The first will include retail and packaging operations, as well as offices and a dry-good shop. We’ll have a teaching kitchen, social hall and space for the farmers market.
The second phase will include space for entrepreneurs and it will have a residential component. Housing is needed now. Skowhegan has a 0.2% vacancy rate. There’s a lack of studio apartments, as well as one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.