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Maine Center Nets $35M Grant for Climate-Smart Agriculture

The Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment in Freeport has received a $35 million federal grant — a figure seven times greater than its annual budget — to promote climate-smart agriculture.

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(TNS) — The Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment in Freeport has received a $35 million federal grant — a figure seven times greater than its annual budget — to promote climate-smart agriculture, Maine's congressional delegation announced last week.

With the five-year award the center will lead a national effort to equip and train workers in climate-smart agriculture, create transition finance incentives for farmers and ranchers, and develop a marketplace for climate-smart commodities, according to a joint statement from U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden.

"It's a sea change in terms of thinking about how we approach agriculture in this country," Wolfe's Neck Center Research Director Dorn Cox said, noting that the center and this grant are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's larger, $2.8 billion initiative: Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities.

"Soil is one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet," said Madison Moran, marketing and communications manager at Wolfe's Neck Center, a nonprofit with a $5 million annual budget. "Most plants store the carbon they capture in soil, which means that for agriculture to become a solution to climate change, we must focus on creating healthy soil environments to maximize carbon capture. This grant enables Wolfe's Neck Center and its partner organizations to scale that knowledge and data to farmers nationwide and at varying levels of production, from the vegetable farmer down the street with a few acres to a rancher with 500-plus cows."

"This is all about basically documenting the change and improvement of soil," Cox said. "This is where we see the carbon capture from the air into productive soils."

The grant money allows Wolfe's Neck to continue its work improving agricultural soil both in Maine and around the country in part through its Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management project. The effort 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 grant also helps Wolfe's Neck Center train and lend technical assistance to agricultural service providers who will develop soil health management plans and document the work. The center is coordinating 60 organizations nationwide in the effort.

Wolfe's Neck will also be creating the technical infrastructure needed for the initiative to succeed, such as digitally connecting farmers, buyers and funders in climate-smart agriculture efforts, Cox said.

"That's how you measure the success here — our soils are healthier, there's more carbon in them, there are healthier plants growing year-round," Cox said. "Those are the things that really deliver the climate benefit."

The massive grant will create "many, many new jobs" for the scores of organizations Wolfe's Neck Center is overseeing, as well as at least 10 new staffers at the center itself, Cox said.

"This funding is a win-win for producers as well as our climate," the Maine lawmakers said in a joint statement. "We are particularly pleased that USDA is investing in two projects that are being spearheaded in Maine. This funding will allow Wolfe's Neck Center to launch an initiative to help farmers implement climate-smart techniques and access the marketplace for climate-smart commodities."

The lawmakers added that the funds will also "provide substantial economic benefits to our rural communities."

Last February, Wolfe's Neck Center received a $2.5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for construction of its $4 million research, education and training facility — expected to be complete by early spring 2023 — that will let the Freeport nonprofit diversify its programs, expand offerings to local schools and get more done year round.

The latest federal grant is the largest Wolfe's Neck Center has received "by an order of magnitude," since it was founded in 1997, Cox said.

© 2022 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.