David Herring, executive director of Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment addresses the crowd Wednesday at the launch of the new OpenTEAM platform. (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

FREEPORT — Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment on Wednesday launched a new $10 million initiative that Executive Director David Herring believes has the power to “change the course of human history,” in part, by fighting climate change.

Working with Stonyfield Organic, the USDA’s LandPKS project and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture, Wolfe’s Neck launched the Open Technology Ecosystem for Agriculture Management (OpenTEAM), a “farmer-driven, interoperable platform to provide farmers around the world with the best possible knowledge to improve soil health,” according to the initiatives’s official description. 

The platform is designed to give farmers the tools to improve soil health and mitigate climate change, Herring told a small crowd of industry leaders, professionals and policymakers, U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree among them.

“Agriculture isn’t rocket science, after all,” Herring said. “It’s actually much more complicated than that.” 

OpenTEAM has been in the works for two years now and will provide “any farmer anywhere with free access to site-specific data, providing quantitative feedback on millions of acres of farmland by 2024,” according to officials.  This data allows farmers to make informed decisions about land-use management. 

Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield, tells the crowd that “farmers are having to adapt to climate change whether they like it or not.” (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

“In order to solve climate change there has to be an ‘all of the above’ strategy, which includes reducing carbon emissions” with solar energy and other sustainable practices that do not require the use of fossil fuels, Herring explained in an earlier interview. “The other piece that’s really critical is increasingly talked about as natural solutions. The way we are managing land on this earth has to dramatically change.” 

Nearly 40% of the earth’s land surface is used for various facets of agriculture, and in recent years, to more efficiently manage that land, farming practices have begun to move away from building soil health, Herring said in August.  Plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. Because of this, practices like tilling soil, for example, release a huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere, he said, and depletes the overall soil health. Healthy soil grows healthy crops. Healthy crops help make healthy humans.

“Climate change is obviously bringing agriculture to a turning point, and around the world, farmers are changing what they grow, where and how they grow it,” said Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Organic and Chief Organic Optimist. “This year, we watched as corn and soybean growers across the Midwest delayed planting later than ever, just as we had in the spring due to unprecedented rains. Coffee growers in Costa Rica are now switching literally out of coffee to oranges. … High heat days right here in Northern New England are creating really serious stress for our animals, calling into question whether conventional dairy production is even viable,” he said, adding that in the United States, agriculture contributes to about 9% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, that number more than doubles to 20%. 

Industry partners perform soil tests in a demonstration of some of the information available through OpenTEAM. (Courtesy of Stonyfield Organic)

“Farmers are being forced to adapt to climate change whether they like it or not,” he said, but they also have the opportunity to become part of the solution. “The key lies in the soil.” 

For example, according to Herring, “farms that have more organic matter (in their soil) are going to be more resilient to (weather) extremes. Healthy soil can absorb water faster and store it for longer, creating a buffer against drought.” 

“By improving soil health, farmers and ranchers can become far more productive and more resilient to precipitation extremes caused by climate change, increasing biodiversity which basically builds sustainability, and in the process, they’re also increasing the amount of carbon that’s being stored,” Hirshberg said.

“We’re confident with the right practices, farms can increase soil carbon storage by an average of one ton per acre on an annual basis,” he said. “An increase of one ton of soil carbon could increase crop yields 20 to 40 kilograms per hectare for wheat, and 10 to 20 for corn. … Carbon sequestration has the potential to offset fossil fuel emissions by (up to) a total of a gigaton  (1 billion tons) of carbon per year.” Or to use less “nerdy” terms, he said, reduce 5 to 15% of global fuel emissions. 

OpenTEAM will combine field-level carbon measurement with digital management records, remote sensing, predictive analytics and input and economic management decision support in a “connected platform that reduces the need for farmer data entry while improving access to a wide array of tools. The platform will support adaptive soil health management for farms of all scales, geographies and production systems,” according to a news release. It will also help scientists better understand soil health by providing better, more reliable data. 

“Within a year or so we will be able to demonstrate and train other farmers about this program and this software so we can gather information and feedback,” Herring said in August, though admittedly, “From a farming perspective it probably won’t mean a lot right away.”

“It will make what was invisible, visible,” said Dorn Cox, Wolfe’s Neck Center research director. 

“As much as we’re in peril, we’re also at the cusp of something so much greater.” 

The project will help “bridge rural and urban divides” as they “test how quickly we can compound our knowledge,” he said, adding that when it will benefit everyone, science should not be competitive. 

“Here at Wolfe’s Neck Center in Freeport, Maine, we are a testing ground for regenerative agriculture,” Herring said. “We must collaborate, we must innovate, and we need to work quickly.” 

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