David Herring, executive director of Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, picks blueberries at the farm on Tuesday. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

FREEPORT — In the past six months, much has changed for Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, but the Freeport-based nonprofit’s mission to change the way people interact with farming and food remains unwavering. 

“The pandemic has taken a lot of things away from us, but not the problems we are going to face related to climate change,” Executive Director David Herring said Tuesday. “That has been and continues to be a huge focus.” 

Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment is home to an oceanfront campground, sustainable coastal farm and educational resource center for regenerative agriculture and research. 

The farm, which has been operating for over 60 years, recently rebranded with the goal to “inspire active participation in a healthier food system and build a community of people who care deeply about the future of food,” according to its website, and Herring said that despite the pandemic, this is, in some ways, going better than ever. 

A goat rests and chews some hay outside the discovery education barn at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

The Fruit and Vegetable Farmer Training Program and the Organic Dairy Research and Farmer Training Program, both of which are geared toward training new generations of farmers to take over Maine’s rapidly aging industry, are seeing increased interest, he said.

Whether due to the spike in unemployment or an elevated appreciation for food security and local, organic products in the face of economic uncertainty and food shortages, Herring wasn’t sure, but both programs have continued uninterrupted. 

The agriculture and dairy operations as a whole, not just the training programs, have held steady as well, with no COVID-19 cases and an industry where social distancing practices are easy to maintain. 

Two large-scale research initiatives are also still on track. 

Open TEAM, a $10 million initiative designed to give farmers the tools to improve soil health and mitigate climate change, and B3, or Bovine Burp Busters, a $3 million research project to see if feeding seaweed to cows reduces methane emissions, were both launched in 2019 and are already funded through grants.  

The only potential hiccup for the B3 program is that other partners, like the University of New Hampshire, the University of Vermont, Colby College and Bates College may be slowed down as they navigate reopening campuses and facilitating remote learning due to the virus. 

That’s not to say Wolfe’s Neck hasn’t been affected by coronavirus. 

According to Herring, all large scale events, such as dinners, dances and festivals were canceled, as was the center’s farm camp, which normally brings about 600 kids to the farm each summer. 

The program is continuing in a shorter, smaller iteration, and many summer programs are open to small groups only. 

The campground reopened in June and has been allowing more campers from more states as statewide restrictions have relaxed. 

Camping and kayaking has been a popular activity for social distancing, Herring said, so despite restrictions and a later start, business is back up to about 75% of where it was last year. 

“We had to modify visitors’ services a little bit but it’s generally the same core experience,” he said. 

The canceled camp and shortened camping season caused revenue to dip, but Wolfe’s Neck officials have avoided layoffs or pay cuts, largely through a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program and a reduction in expenses, like hiring fewer seasonal staff since there are fewer events. 

Overall, Herring said he is feeling good about the organization’s future and said it should “land in a comparable spot to where we had budgeted,” ready to move “full steam ahead.” 

The farm has also served as a place for people to be outside and explore close to home, or for some, to work with the earth in a meaningful way. 

Amanda MacLeod interned with the fruit and vegetable crew at Wolfe’s Neck last summer through an employee internship at Patagonia that offers employees up to two months away from regular duties to work for an environmental group or nonprofit. 

Now, furloughed, she visits the farm several times per week to help out wherever she can, whether it’s by weeding, hilling leeks or watering in one of the greenhouses. 

There are plenty of independent projects that keep her outside working with her hands and is a way to be involved with positive environmental stewardship (something she is passionate about), she said, adding that seeing people exploring Wolfe’s Neck and engaging with new places has been a bright spot.

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