Maine Farmland Trust and Wolfe’s Neck Center in Freeport has 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, according to a statement from the trust.

“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,” Maine Farmland Trust Farm Viability Director Sarah Simon said in the statement. “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 Wolfe’s Neck. “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.”

According to the trust, 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.

“Watching our topsoil blow away for long stretches of hot windy days has felt like an existential crisis,” said 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 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.

The eight participating farms also have worked with the trust to protect their land with a conservation easement.

“At this point, MFT holds 247 easements on farms in Maine,” Simon said. “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.”

Farms that will participate in the Maine Soil Health Network’s initial cohort are Balfour Farm, Pittsfield; Bumbleroot Organic Farm, Windham; Erickson Fields, Rockport; Ketch Farms, Woodland; The Milkhouse, Monmouth; Songbird Farm, Unity; South Paw Farm, Freedom; Two Coves Farm, Harpswell.

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