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Amber Lambke smiles like a proud parent at the Osttiroler Getreidemühlen Green grain mill that occupies most of the second floor of the Somerset Grist Mill in downtown Skowhegan, where her company, Maine Grains, stone grinds organic wheat and oats to sell throughout the Northeast.
The mill's light pine exterior and wooden, hand-twist adjustment levers mask the sheer might needed to make artisan bread flour. Inside its simplistic shell are two, four-foot diameter grinding stones whose outer eight inches rub and mash wheat from a dozen farms, mostly from The County, until it is fine, after which it goes through an even finer sieve before it is bagged.
The machine's arrival a year or so ago from Austria both thrilled and scared Lambke, who is president, and co-owner Mike Scholz, who is vice president. They realized quickly they didn't know whether the machine was operating properly.
“We bought a stone mill from Austria and it came with very rudimentary instructions. We wanted to know if it sounded right, so we called a baker in California who we had been corresponding with, Dave Miller, and we went back and forth, holding the phone up to the mill and asking, 'Does this sound right, is this how it's supposed to sound?' It's a small world of stone millers out there and we share tips and stories,” Lambke says.
She was leading a tour of 70 or so artisan bread (which she defines as high quality) makers and aficionados who had come for the two-day Kneading Conference and the Maine Artisan Bread Fair, and eagerly answering detailed questions about the how the grist mill works. It was a busy few days for Lambke, who helped organize the conference and fair, as well as the mill tour for the public and later a private tour for Gov. Paul LePage.
To Scholz, Lambke's infectious smile and ability to multitask hearkens back to when he first met her at Pine Tree Camp for the disabled on the shore of North Pond in Rome, where they both were volunteers.
“You have to be on your toes constantly, tying shoes, putting on sunscreen and thinking of the next thing,” Scholz told Mainebiz, speaking from his Old Town kayak off the shore of the camp. “That translates into the rest of life. She's attentive to what needs to be done around her, and helps those who need it, to improve the world around her.”
At the grist mill, that means talking to the truck drivers who bring the grain and helping them get something to haul on the way back, like sawdust for Sappi. That way, the truckers get paid both ways. And when she discovered that many of the drivers had never tried the grain they were delivering, she gave them some.
“That's quick-thinking,” he says. “She looks for ways to solve problems.”
That skill was particularly needed when Maine Grains went to the town of Skowhegan to buy the former county jail and turn it into the grist mill. It didn't help that Amber wasn't born and raised locally.
“When someone from elsewhere comes to a small town in Maine and shakes things up, it can put people's noses out of joint,” says Scholz. But time and persuasion finally got them the green light for the mill. Adds Lambke, “There was some well-founded skepticism,” from senior members of the community, but ultimately she says she received tremendous community support.
“Amber is a very positive person. She's upbeat and puts on the very best face she can, even when things are looking grim,” he adds.
Lambke got bitten by the flour bug when she says she heard again and again from 60-year-old men running mills, “If I die tomorrow, no one will take over my mill.”
She became a co-founder of the first Kneading Conference in 2007, she says, “To bring millers, farmers and others together to help revive the regional economy.” She had met her husband, who is a doctor, at a contra dance in North Whitefield and moved to Skowhegan in 2001, at first keeping her profession as a speech pathologist, and then gaining interest in the artisan baking and local food movements. She and Scholz, an artisan baker looking for the perfect flour, decided to start a mill, and were looking for a site when they found the old county jail building, which was occupied until 2009, was for sale. “There were still inmates in it when I first saw it,” says Lambke.
They bought the 14,000-square-foot building from the county for $65,000, and raised and spent $1.6 million to build it into its current configuration, which includes the grist mill occupying about one-third of the building, a separate yarn shop and an outdoor coffee shop. There still are unoccupied sections on the top floor of the building with cell blocks. A farmer's market runs in the parking lot next to it on weekends. All are part of an active effort to revitalize downtown Skowhegan, as well as to attract more young farmers to the state.
Breaking down the walls in the former jail was no small task, as they were three feet thick. While the mill now has enough space, Lambke foresees a time when it may expand capacity so oats and wheat aren't processed in the same facility. That also would open up the gluten-free market, which she says could double her staff, along with selling online. The mill also potentially could process spelt, buckwheat, barley and other grains.
Lambke still struggles with the question of who can buy the locally made food, as 51% of the local area population qualifies for food assistance. There is a fruit and vegetable prescription program that partners with doctors, but she'd like to see the fresh, locally made food available to more people.
Her business model is to reach New York City and the rest of the Northeast, distributing through Crown O'Maine and others. Her funding strategy has been to find what she calls “slow investors,” those who defer principal and interest for the first five years, charge a low interest of around 5% and who believe in strengthening the food system. She also received a $40,000 grant from the Quimby Family Foundation.
Lambke's ambitions continue to run wide. She recently visited her birthplace, Iceland, on a trade mission to that country with Gov. LePage and others. Her dad was in the Navy, and after stints in California, West Virginia and then Maine, he worked for Bath Iron Works for more than 20 years.
She had previously talked with Eimskip, which told her it needed backhaul to Europe and informed her about the trade mission.
“Iceland doesn't grow much grain, so this is a product they lack,” she says. “I realized I could be the eyes and ears for Maine's local foods.” Iceland imports a majority of its food. There is one mill in Denmark that makes white flour, but no one is making stone ground or organic flours.
The U.S. organic grain production is still only about 1 million acres total, and Maine has about 2,500 total acres of that, she says, quoting numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But that's still enough for a small export business.
“There's energy and a small market for local and organic foods in Iceland,” she says. “The shipping for us would be no more complicated than getting our product to New York City.”
“I left Iceland feeling like we can continue talking to them about value-added whole grains,” she says. There are other opportunities, like selling grain to fish farms, and for other Maine businesses like farms and fish. “I will continue to communicate with the Maine International Trade Center.”