Maine farmer aims to spark grain renaissance

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff

Posted March 31, 2017, at 6:42 a.m.

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Tristan Noyes grew up in the small town of Woodland, just outside Caribou. With Aroostook County roots, he recalls having the three-week break from school for the potato harvest and how free-flowing knowledge was about growing potatoes.

“If you ask almost anyone, it doesn’t matter if you grew up on a farm or not or if your parents were farmers, but if you’re from Aroostook County, that person can tell you 12 varieties of potatoes, how they are grown, when potatoes are in blossom and how to harvest them,” Noyes said.

In his new role serving as the executive director for the Maine Grain Alliance, Noyes said he wants to work toward making this type of widespread knowledge be the case for growing grains in the state.

“We don’t have that same kind of culture and knowledge basis for folks [growing grain],” he said. “If I am a potato grower and I go down the road to my elder potato grower who’s been doing it for 70 years and ask a question, he’s going to know everything. If I’m growing grain there is not the same person down the road as there once was, so that’s what we’re trying to build back.”

Noyes assumed the executive director role at the Skowhegan-based organization last summer. Going into it’s 11th year, the Maine Grain Alliance has worked to advance the grain economy in the state by working with grain producers and a range of industries that utilize grains as a product from bakers to brewers.

For Noyes, the importance that grain plays in the food economy is interwoven with agrarian traditions and a connection to the land. The locavore movement has brought the importance of locally grown food to a broader audience, giving locally grown grain a modern platform.

However, Noyes is also intrigued with the role grains have played in the state’s past — a story fewer people know.

Maine was once the breadbasket of New England, Noyes said, around the time of the Civil War the state’s farmers were providing all of the grain needs for the Union Army. This was supported by small farms and mills dotting the Maine countryside. But as large scale commodity farms in the midwest began playing a larger role in the grain market, grain growing in the Northeast began to slow.

However, with grains traditionally being grown as a cover crop in places such as Aroostook County, potato farmers never stopped growing fields of grain to space out their potato rotation. What was needed to reenergize the grain economy was to refocus the growing of the crop for food purposes rather than simply soil health purposes.

“What’s happened over time is that we’ve lost some of that culture that existed and knowledge and know how and resources,” Noyes said. “In recent years that has come booming back and so our goal is to help preserve and promote grain traditions.”

It’s this callback to traditions that brought Noyes where he is today. After graduating from Bowdoin, Noyes left his home state for Boston, where he was the director of a global education organization. In that role, traveled around the country and the world, helping to establish experiential learning programs for high school students.

Noyes loved his job, but lessons instilled in him from his rural upbringing were calling him back.

“I loved my job, and you don’t often leave jobs you love, but there was something,” Noyes paused. “That connection that you have to the land, that you have from a very early stage, is something that brought me back.”

Upon coming back to Maine, Noyes and his brother started an organic vegetable farm, GroMaine, in their hometown of Woodland. In growing leafy greens on fields that had been in his family for generations, Noyes began to dabble around with growing grains.

However, there was one problem: Noyes didn’t know how to grow grains. So he began researching online and found the Maine Grain Alliance. He was instantly intrigued with what the organization was doing in working to bring back the knowledge and resources necessary to support a new grain economy.

“I’ve always felt really passionate about wanting to promote the region where I grew up, and Maine in general,” Noyes said. “Maine Grain Alliance is a great marriage of those things.”

Through the Maine Grain Alliance, Noyes hopes not only to help support those who work with grain on a daily basis, but also to bring the knowledge of grain to a larger audience.

“I think, when you think of grain, you think of a field of grain,” Noyes said, adding that people are less likely to think of what that grain is actually used for in our food.

While that image of an amber wave of grain might be where most people’s immediate association with grains stops, through the Maine Grain Alliance, Noyes wants to educate folks on the very large role that grains actually play in their everyday lives.

Grains are in breads, they’re in beer, they’re in cereals. Grains even impact the meat people eat through what the animals are being feed.

“It touches everything, so we have a real vested interest in promoting and making people understand why having a healthy grain economy is so important and it’s something that Maine can lead in,” Noyes said.

Through events such as the annual Kneading Conference in July and the Maine Artisan Bread Fair in August, the great things Maine growers and producers are doing with grains can be on display for consumers, Noyes said, inspiring a conversation about the role grains play into our food economy.

“This is the perfect marriage and what I’m passionate about: food systems promotion, the connection to being thoughtful and strong stewards of the land, the farming, all the different types of businesses that are part of this [grain] cluster,” Noyes said. “And also, just technically learning how to do what is part of my business.”