Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation Inc. has been awarded a $573,256 federal grant to support the expansion of its fledgling Organic Dairy Farmer Training Program at the Freeport farm.

The grant was announced this week by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. It will be paid out over three years and allow Wolfe’s Neck to increase the number of apprentices in the two-year Organic Dairy Farmer Training Program from four to eight. When the program launched in 2015, it was funded by $1.7 million from Stonyfield, the organic yogurt producer. Stonyfield picks up milk from Wolfe’s Neck every other day and trucks it to New Hampshire for processing.

The U.S. Department of Agricultuee grant will also be used to fund the expansion of the program to other farms in New England. Wolfe’s Neck’s dairy program is partnered with a Wisconsin-based group called the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, which helps train future dairy farmers on 40 “Master” farms throughout Wisconsin and into other states including Minnesota.

Wolfe’s Neck is the lone East Coast farm in the group and the nonprofit’s executive director, David Herring, welcomed the opportunity to bring the apprenticeship model to other farms throughout New England. As news of the grant spread, Herring’s phone started ringing.

“I’ve already been contacted by four farms, three in Vermont and one in Massachusetts, that are interested in becoming Master farms,” Herring said. “It is really encouraging.”

The dairy business has struggled in Maine, with the number of working farms cut in half in the last 20 years. Encouragingly, the number of organic dairy farms is on the rise. Herring said there are about 55 organic dairies in Maine. But still, there are only about 250 dairies left in Maine, and many of them are run by older farmers who are having trouble finding anyone to take over their businesses. A program like the one in Freeport brings new life into the industry.

The grant will allow Wolfe’s Neck to hire an education coordinator for the program to develop partnerships with farms throughout the region.

“Then they would be providing on-site support for the master farm and the apprentices,” Herring said. “We will essentially become the New England regional hub for the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, developing partnerships with grazing dairies throughout the region and providing the farms with the support they need to bring on apprentices and assist in training the next generation. This is a very big deal for Maine and New England.”

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