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Sunday, Oct. 4, 6:03 p.m.

UMaine receives $1.3M for wheat research

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deputy secretary announced a $19 million grant Friday which will fund the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, which includes $1.3 million for University of Maine research of wheat varieties.

Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary, announced the grant at the Borealis Breads Bakery and Bistro in Portland. The UMaine research that the grant helps fund will attempt to find the wheat variety that produces the best yield and quality which is most optimal for the New England climate. Professor Ellen Mallory is leading a group of researchers and extension educators at UMaine that is conducting the research.

“[The] organic agricultural sector has been growing. The trend has been generally for organic marketplace to grow about 20 percent a year, and that’s been true since about 1990,” Merrigan said.

Merrigan said the initiative is also focused on increasing the consumption of locally grown food, which she said Maine could become a leader in, similar to the way it has with renewable energy.

“I don’t see why it [Maine] won’t be,” Merrigan said.

Merrigan said she hopes UMaine students will recognize their importance in agriculture’s future. She said the average age of a Maine farmer is 59, and half of the agriculture department’s employees are eligible for retirement.

“I want to ask young people, ‘Do you want to be a part of this agricultural industry?’” Merrigan said.

Mallory said UMaine’s portion of the grant will be used to fund research into evaluating a wide range of wheat varieties during the next four years. The research was jump-started recently using winter wheat varieties planted at Rogers Farm on Bennoch Road in Stillwater. She said the research grant is also conducting tests of ways to optimally manage wheat growing and make the plants more fertile. Another part of the initiative is creating tools for farmers, such as interactive budgets “so that farmers can evaluate the profitability of growing bread wheat and figure out if it works for their system,” Mallory said.

The initiative will also fund cooperative education — teaching farmers and industry members ways to employ the tools and findings the research will provide. Merrigan said the initiative involves not just researchers and farmers, but also millers, bakers and other industry leaders.

“It’s not just kind of pure research; there’s also extension components to it. So the idea is that it allows production to marketing of the organic bread market in Maine,” Merrigan said.

Merrigan said the initiative doesn’t focus solely on wheat. She said. “It’s about everything that’s grown” or eaten, from grains to meats.

Launched in May, the know your farmer initiative is an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, which provides flexibility for agricultural department programs to favor locally grown food.

“We all need to look at our home institutions and what’s going on there. Our local restaurants, our campus dining halls … ask ourselves, ‘How are we voting with our forks?’” Merrigan said.

Merrigan said if students would demand organic and locally grown food more, universities such as UMaine would buy more, and consumer demand is the driving force behind increasing organic and locally grown food production. Merrigan said the initiative is about “where we’re going in agriculture in the future, and who the new young farmers are going to be.”

Aaron Lavallee, communications coordinator for the Department of Agriculture, said UMaine is receiving the largest amount of the grant.