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Freeport farm gets $35 million to spread climate-friendly farming practices

Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment received a $35 million grant from the USDA's new Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities program.

FREEPORT, Maine — Every year, tens of thousands of people come to Freeport to visit Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment. The sustainable farm is located right on the ocean and produces organic dairy products and fruits and vegetables. Staff members there are on a mission to transform how people look at farming and the food system. 

Thomas Prohl is the farm operations manager at Wolfe's Neck Center. For him, his day-to-day schedule often varies. Sometimes, he works with the fruit and vegetable crew to harvest produce and get it ready for donations to food pantries. Other times, he tends to a herd of 32 organically certified dairy cows, making hay and milking them twice daily. His team consists of apprentices, who work at Wolfe's Neck Center for two years and then head out into the world. 

"We’ve sent a number of farmers out into the food system with the knowledge and the tooling to continue this best management practice farming and bring it all over New England," Prohl said.

Wolfe's Neck Center sits on 626 acres of public land. Prohl said another big part of the farm's mission is connecting with the 30,000 to 40,000 annual visitors who come to the area to camp and get outdoors. Farm staff members do their best to spread the word about work the farm is doing amidst challenges of producing food in 2022.

"Food is not grown and produced in the supermarket. How does it get there?" Prohl asked rhetorically, later adding, "One of our ongoing challenges, which is constantly plaguing us, is a changing climate. We had an incredibly dry summer this year and a dry summer last year."

Over time, the farm has gotten involved with new initiatives like the Maine Soil Health Network. Wolfe's Neck Center worked with the Maine Farmland Trust to launch the MSHN in 2021, providing Maine farmers with information and support to improve the health of soil on their farms. Prohl said Wolfe's Neck Center has also partnered with Maine Standard Biofuels to run as much equipment off of biodiesel as possible. He said doing so is cost-effective and helpful to the environment. 

"Every day, people have to eat. No matter what, we are going to have to be farming until the end of days. We have to find a way to do it sustainably," Prohl said.

Now, Wolfe's Neck Center is getting the opportunity to do that on an even greater scale. The farm recently received a $35 million grant for the USDA's new Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities program. It will use that money over a five-year period to incentivize about 1,000 farms nationwide (representing roughly 1 million acres) to use more climate-friendly farming practices. The farm will do so through large partners like Lundberg, General Mills, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield. 

"A portion of this grant will be deployed to producers, to farms to incentivize them to put in place new practices — practices that are new to them but are not new. Largely, they’re drawn from historical practices that indigenous people were practicing even before we were here," Dave Herring, the executive director of Wolfe's Neck Center, said.

Herring said the practices they'll be working to implement include techniques like composting, cover-cropping, and low- and no-till agriculture. He said they'll be focusing on pilot projects for dairy, grains, and rice in California, Colorado, and the Northeast. He said some of the money will also go specifically to underserved farmers, like Black and Indigenous people. 

"Minimizing the soil disturbance on farms across the country will have a dramatic affect in helping us store more carbon in our soil and draw down carbon through photosynthesis. It also helps us become more climate-resilient," Herring said, later adding, "The reality is, the bulk of the food that’s being produced in this country is likely not being produced...with climate-friendly practices."

Alexandra Gulachenski is the farm networks coordinator at Wolfe's Neck Center. She said this new national reach is significant.

"What works here for farmers in Maine is not necessarily going to work for farmers in the Midwest, but a lot of the practices and principles around soil health and climate-smart agriculture are core across the region," Gulachenski said.

She said this grant will allow Wolfe's Neck Center to engage with researchers across the country and continue testing out new practices and emerging technologies. 

"Farmers are really thinking about how to make sure their business is able to move forward in the long term. Farmers are thinking about the next generation," Gulachenski said. 

Herring said Wolfe's Neck Center was one of 70 projects announced. He said the USDA's original funding pool for this program was $1 billion, but it was increased to $2.8 billion. 

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