On May 4, Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) and Wolfe’s Neck Center (WNC) in Freeport launched the Maine Soil Health Network in partnership with Pasa Sustainable Agriculture in Pennsylvania. The Maine Soil Health Network is a pilot project that will support an initial cohort of eight farms in learning about the effects of different farm management practices on the farm’s soil and deciding which practices to use in the future.
“In Maine, we are fortunate to have many farms who are committed to being good stewards of their land and who want to invest in improving the health of the soil,” said Sarah Simon, Farm Viability Director at MFT. “Yet it’s often difficult to draw conclusions from an annual soil test about the long-term impacts of farm management practices.” The Maine Soil Health Network will fill these gaps by tracking the impact of management practices over time, with an end goal of supporting a farmer-led peer learning group focused on climate-friendly soil practices in Maine.
“There is a need to find innovative ways to help farmers understand more about the outcomes of their management practices, said Dave Herring, Executive Director at WNC. “We are excited to apply the work of OpenTEAM, a global collaborative developing accessible and relevant digital tools for farmers, to allow Maine farmers to gain site-specific information that will help them improve their practices and their farm businesses.”
The creation of the Soil Health Network comes as soil degradation through agriculture continues to be a major threat to the climate and environment worldwide, with farming practices like intensive tillage and use of chemical fertilizers leading to not only soil loss through erosion and run-off, but also greater carbon emissions and reduced carbon sequestration. For Maine farmers, these global trends have hit close to home. “Watching our topsoil blow away for long stretches of hot windy days has felt like an existential crisis,” reflected Meg Mitchell, owner of South Paw Farm in Freedom. “Having tools to get our soils in better shape to withstand changing weather patterns would further our long-term goal of viability.”
In contrast, healthy soils can store carbon, withstand erosion caused by extreme weather, improve water quality, and support healthy plants and animals. Farmers who implement practices that encourage soil health have a key role in mitigating the impacts of climate change, both on the farm and for the broader community. The Maine Soil Health Network will help farmers begin to learn which soil health practices work for their farm, and connect them to a network of other farms to share resources and information.
The initial cohort of eight farms, which are diverse in scale and crop type and located throughout Maine, will participate in the Soil Health Benchmark Study, a citizen science research project developed by Pasa Sustainable Agriculture. During the study, farmers will comprehensively assess the health of their soils through soil tests and record-keeping, and learn how their soil health data compares to their peers, as well as comparing with five years of data gathered by Pasa Sustainable Agriculture from over 100 farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The farms will use digital tools developed by OpenTEAM, an initiative for using open-source technology, to capture and record farm data and share data-driven insights and resources between farms. OpenTEAM is led by Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport.
The Maine farm participants, like Melissa Law of Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham, are excited to collaborate with a group of farmers looking to improve soil health. “We're looking forward to being part of a group of farmers with the same intentions so that we can all share resources and experiences,” Law said. The issue of soil health also has recently gained prominence in the Maine Legislature, where in March Senator Stacy Brenner (D-Scarborough)’s bill to establish a Maine Healthy Soils Program was unanimously voted ought to pass by the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. This Healthy Soils Program will establish a clearinghouse of resources for farmers interested in using practices that grow soil health.
All eight participating farms also have worked with MFT to protect their land with a conservation easement, and Simon sees programs like the Maine Soil Health Network as crucial to the organization’s relationship with the farms it has protected from development.. “At this point, MFT holds 247 easements on farms in Maine,” added Simon. “Those easements represent our perpetual commitment to stewarding Maine farmland in partnership with farm owners, and the Soil Health Network is a new way for us to support, inform and incentivize farmers to use practices that improve their soil health for the future.”
The farms that will participate in the Maine Soil Health Network’s initial cohort are:
Maine Farmland Trust is a statewide, member-powered nonprofit working to protect farmland, support farmers, and advance the future for farming. Since 1999, MFT has helped to keep over 60,000 acres of farmland in farming, and has provided critical business planning, land access, and other services to over 800 farm families.
Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment is a nonprofit organization with a mission to transform our relationship with farming and food for a healthier planet. Situated on over 600 acres of conserved coastal landscape in Freeport, Maine, WNC uses its setting to connect people of all ages to the food they eat and where it comes from. WNC’s farm-based programs focus on training farmers, performing innovative research, and immersing people of all ages into the world of farming and nature. For more information, visit Wolfe’s Neck Center at wolfesneck.org, follow on Twitter at @wolfesneck, and on Facebook and Instagram at @wolfesneckcenter.