FREEPORT – Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is a vital part of the struggle to head off the unfolding climate crisis, as the sector accounts for about 14 percent of the worldwide total. But how to do that?

Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, the Freeport nonprofit previously known as Wolfe’s Neck Farm, thinks it has part of the answer: Give farmers the tools they need to rehabilitate their soils, boosting their yields and revenue while soaking up greenhouse gas-creating carbon rather than releasing it.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Stonyfield Organic co-founder Gary Hirshberg were at Wolfe’s Neck Wednesday for the launch of the $10 million OpenTEAM initiative, which seeks to develop, test and deploy an open-source technology system that will let even small farmers collect, share and access detailed data on their soils.

The information would help farmers make better decisions about what and when to plant in a particular place to maximize the ecological potential of the soil. If a particular plot had overly compacted soil, preventing it from soaking up water well and forcing plants to expend extra energy to grow, the farmer might plant a particular cover crop ahead of time – such as red clover (good for over-wintering) or radishes (which have strong, penetrating tap roots) – to mitigate the problem and make his or her primary crop grow faster and better, gobbling up greenhouse gas-causing carbon in the process.

“There’s a general understanding that if we want to sequester carbon, we have to plant a tree … but we don’t want to plant a tree on every acre of agriculture,” Pingree, a member of the House agricultural committee and an organic farmer by profession, told the audience of 200 at the farm. “Farmers can really be our partners in preventing the loss of carbon into the atmosphere and in sequestering it in the soil.”

The Freeport-based initiative will allow farmers to cheaply gather and instantly analyze soil samples to map the carbon content of their fields with hand-held sensory devices and a tablet. That information can be integrated with remote sensing and federal soil surveys and a range of analytical software tools that currently aren’t set up to “talk” to each other.

“In recent years there’s been an explosion in tools becoming available – hardware and software models that can identify site-specific strategies” to improve soil health, said Hirshberg of Stonyfield Organic, the New Hampshire organic dairy processor, which together with its associated foundation has contributed $400,000 toward the project.

Sharing data will allow farmers, policy makers and scientists to more rapidly learn what techniques work best to improve the health of different types of soils and different conditions, an effort that boils down to maximizing the living activity going on in the dirt, from root systems to bacteria, says Dorn Cox, Wolfe’s Neck’s research director. “Collaboration is about the urgency – how quickly can we compound our knowledge so we can get answers in the time we have,” Cox said, “because if we approach this individually and on a competitive basis, we are not going to get there.”

In a nearby field, Dan Kane, a doctoral student at Yale University, demonstrated a handheld device he and his collaborators have been developing. Put a soil sample in the device, and its spectrometer will estimate its carbon content and upload the results into your mobile device, where it can be linked to its GPS location and integrated with other software tools and data sets. The cost to the user, he says, will be a few hundred dollars, a quick return on investment when each soil sample sent to a lab costs $25 to $40 to process.

The OpenTEAM project aims to field test and improve this and a wide range of other devices capable of measuring the microbial community in the soil, as well as how it is handling water infiltration and erosion, and other chemical and physical properties, Cox says.

“The real key is understanding the way our world works and the incredible technology and biodiversity that’s been here for millions of years and has adapted to every place on Earth,” he adds. “We are just beginning to understand how to work with that.”

The project – whose name stands for Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management – is supported by a $5 million grant from the Washington-based Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and also by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s LandPKS Project, which develops mobile apps for use by land use practitioners worldwide. It will be coordinated from Wolfe’s Neck’s 600-acre farm, where initial field tests will be conduced, with further fieldwork to be conducted at some 25 other farms around the country.

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