The Kneading Conference, held in Maine for the past several years, is fun and highly informative. Denyce and I skipped this summer’s event but very much enjoyed the two prior years.
Now the food savvy Northwest has invited the Maine folks to help them organize the first Kneading Conference West which will take place in Mount Vernon, Washington, September 15th – 17th in the beautiful Skagit Valley.
The story of the Kneading Conference really begins with a few individuals who, recognizing that things were difficult and getting worse in their community, decided to do something about it. Like many of America’s rural towns , in recent decades Skowhegan, Maine suffered from an exodus of Main Street businesses due to the success of chain store competitors and a lifestyle turned upside down by jobs shipped overseas. This group of KC visionaries (I came along later) knew that up until the 1850s their community and several surrounding counties produced 100% of the grains eaten by people and animals in the state of Maine. Why not bring back grain farming? As it turns out, many regions across the U.S. produced their own grains until cheap transportation (railroads and the Erie Canal) made the long growing season and fertility of the Midwestern soils abundantly available.
The stroke of genius of the conference founders was to realize that knocking on the doors of farmers and suggesting they add grain crops to their rotations was not going to work. The knowledge and necessary infrastructure had been lost eons ago. Instead, they would need to bring to the table a diversity of support: millers, wheat breeders, bakers, and eaters. From the ensuing exchange of ideas, experiences, and concerns, new relationships and new plans could emerge.
As it turns out, this was a great model for bringing back the wheat! In Maine, the Kneading Conference has become a successful incubator for baking enterprises, wheat farming, new grist mills, and most importantly, for the understanding among bakers, novice and professional, that nothing tastes better or offers more nutrition than whole grains, freshly ground, that taste of the land where they were grown. Now in its fifth year, the Maine Kneading Conference attracts people from around the U. S. and Canada and even Europe and, last year, New Zealand. It is a model of grassroots activism mixed with innovative entrepreneurialism that is gaining traction elsewhere.
All in all, what the Kneading Conference does best is inspire people to take pleasure in something as basic as bread and to think of it from its source – the seed planted in the soil – to its final delight – the bite! And to look around and think about whether grains might grow nearby. Something as foundational as grains can become a cornerstone for rebuilding communities and even for instilling a sense of community.
Both websites have more information, the keynote speakers and presenters and schedules, and on the Kneading Conference (Maine) website, articles, photos, and videos, that describe the experience.