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Tasting quality of place

July 24, 2020

Maine Grains is just down the Kennebec River from us, and when I taste the flour, I’m so glad to be here. And here’s what I saw on the NYT home page:

“Keep baking bread. Small grain companies may suggest a better path for American business, by Tim Wu, NYT, July 24, 2020.”

On the Maine Grains homepage: “We believe that a gristmill is at the heart of turning the many and varied contributions of a community into sustenance for all.”

Over the years we have been involved here and there in helping out the process of finding and reviving an exciting street life in old mill towns and their regions. Another book asks to be written, but here’s Tim Wu’s article and a few excerpts:

This bigger-is-better, dominate-the-industry strategy is a major reason the American economy is as oligarchical and homogeneous as it is. It leads to large national companies that richly reward shareholders and executives while limiting workers’ salaries and reducing the prospects for smaller or local competitors. The sale of flour is no different.

Companies like Maine Grains and King Arthur are challenging the commodity pressures in flour markets using methods that were pioneered in the craft beer and local produce markets. The commodity industry takes flour as flour — just an ingredient, the cheaper the better. But baking is also an emotional experience, an act of creation in its beauty and intensity, a longstanding symbol of the home. And it provokes, in some, a yearning to connect with local soil and local land…

A regional mill like Maine Grains represents a more radical vision: the return of true agricultural localism. As Amber Lambke, the founder and chief executive of Maine Grains, told me, there’s more to that vision than selling a fancy type of flour. The local mill is the missing link in a local food economy that sees regional trade between farmers, bakeries, beer breweries and raisers of livestock.

The regional grain industry also employs more people, relative to its size…

We have, for the past few decades, put our faith in an economic model that insists that everyone will be better off if we do everything to make production as cheap as possible, keeping prices and salaries low, and make every region of the economy highly specialized. That approach, it turns out, does make some people rich, but it does not help everyone.

The flour industry might seem an unlikely arena for business innovation. There was once a time, in the 1990s and 2000s, when it was widely thought that Silicon Valley would show us the way to a better, fairer economy, creating entire ecosystems of companies with distinctive offerings. Yet that was before the emergence and eventual dominance of Amazon, Facebook and Google. Instead of high-tech, it is low-tech businesses like craft beer and community supported agriculture that seem to stand at the forefront of economic transformation.

If it can happen with flour, it can happen anywhere.

Whole loaf here…

Mr. Wu is the author of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age,” and “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.” Both books succinctly helped me gain perspective on a warped economy.

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