Maine Soil Health Network: Sharing Soil Health Data and Practices to Increase Farm Viability and Climate Resilience

Progress report for ONE21-398

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $29,634.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2024
Grant Recipient: Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Marissa Mastors
Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment
Expand All

Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to:

1: Support Maine farmers in learning about their soils to improve soil health

2: Take thorough soil health measurements and collect management data

3: Submit Maine data to Pasa’s Soil Health Benchmark Study; Pasa will produce reports for farmers to compare and learn about their soils

4: Coordinate ongoing farmer outreach, education, and collaborative engagement

5: Develop a peer-to-peer network of farmers interested in soil health and climate resilience, to support one another and share field management techniques 

Introduction:

A 2019 Statewide Engagement Process on Maine Farmers’ Needs & Priorities indicated that farmers’ greatest need is for a variety of information, resources, and education to support day-to-day farm operations, including skills related to managing soils (Skakalski, 2019).  Farmers are limited in their access to the information, technology and finances needed for the large-scale adoption practices that improve soil health.  Measurement tools are often expensive, proprietary, and do not communicate with each other, creating data silos and withholding insights from farmers to help manage land effectively.   

MFT and WNC are engaging farmers in the Maine Soil Health Network to implement climate-friendly practices on a wide range of farms across the state.  In 2021, 8 farm partners were selected as the pilot cohort.  Farmers will receive financial and technical support to monitor soil health on their farms and commit to participating in regular workshops to share results with other members of the cohort and technical assistance providers.  The long-term vision for the Maine Soil Health Network is to support a farmer-led peer learning model around climate-friendly practices in Maine. 

The Maine Soil Health Network will utilize tools and technology developed by OpenTEAM, (Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management), an initiative for using open-source technology to improve soil health and share information and resources between farms. Led by WNC, a collaborative group of farmers, scientists, industry leaders and agriculture technologists, OpenTEAM technology offers field-level carbon measurement, 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 participating farms in the Maine Soil Health Network will utilize OpenTEAM technology to track management practices and soil health.  

In 2021-22, the Maine Soil Health Network is collaborating with Pasa (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) as the Maine cohort for their Soil Health Benchmark Study, a citizen science project aiming to help farmers assess the health of soils, compare data to their peers, and track changes in soil over time with different management practices.  The study seeks to allow farmers to learn from each other and to develop solutions to soil health problems in their production systems.  Pasa is part of the OpenTEAM network, and current farms in the Benchmark study are already utilizing OpenTEAM technology to measure soil health.

Agricultural natural climate solutions have been identified as important strategies for improving farm viability and contributing to state-wide climate change mitigation.  By improving soil health, Maine farmers can see an increase in yields and profits per acre, as well as enhanced adaptation and resilience (Daigneault, Simons-Legaard, Birthisel, Carroll, Fernandez, and Weiskittel, 2020).  To achieve these benefits, the proposed Maine Soil Health Network presents an organized program for providing training, technical and financial soil sampling and analysis interpretation support to farmers throughout the state with the goal of improving soil health on farms.   

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Heather Balfour - Producer
  • Franklin Egan - Technical Advisor
  • Aaron Englander - Producer
  • Caitlin Frame - Producer
  • Joe Grady - Producer
  • Melissa Law - Producer
  • Meg Mitchell - Producer
  • Sarah Simon

Research

Materials and methods:

In spring 2021, MFT secured 8 farm partners throughout the state as program participants for the pilot cohort of the Maine Soil Health Network.   These farmers represented a diversified vegetable or livestock/dairy farming operation, are MFT easement holders, and have committed to staying in the program for at least 3 years. A Maine CIG award supports the work with our pilot cohort of eight farms, and allows us to add four more farms in 2022, and to support the participating farmers with travel, accommodation, and educational stipends. We believe that this added financial support for farmers will be very meaningful in advancing their learning and soil health goals, and will allow us to make greater progress towards the objectives below.

Unfortunately, in January 2022 two of the participating farms decided to remove themselves from the Maine Soil Health Network.  Songbird Farm is facing a major PFAS contamination on their small grains and vegetable operation.  Luckily, grains do not take up the PFAS which has allowed them to save their crop this past season, but the farm is facing long term soil contamination problems. They simply do not have the bandwidth for anything else at this point.  We still plan to give them the results from the soil testing performed in fall 2021, but they do not want to be involved in the Network moving forward.  Additionally, the owner Ketch Farms is navigating some personal issues and also does not have the bandwidth to continue his involvement in the Network moving forward.

We plan to post the application for recruiting six additional farms in February 2022.  SARE Partnership funds will support adding four more farms to the Soil Health Network, which, combined with the remaining CIG funds, will allow us to support a total of sixteen farms in the program in 2022 and 2023 (6 additional farms being added to the original 8 farms through the CIG grant, and 4 additional farms being added through the SARE grant).

Farmer Selection Process
We will reach out to farmers who have MFT conservation easements on their land to share more information on the program and ask them to fill out a simple application to join the program. We will ask for a multi-year commitment at the outset. Here is a link to the application form that we used in 2021, which received 11 applications with a total of 8 accepted farms: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScGNICiUHMA4_YEq4s00_IJ4TdD2lEy86k5R8r1RhKYh5rBzw/viewform?usp=sf_link

We think that using a similar process will likely result in at least 10 more applications. The eight farmers we have been working with can help with outreach and encourage other farmers to join the network, given their experience, and now that we have secured grant funds to support the project for multiple years, and to support farmers to learn about soil health and attend our events, we think it will be an even more attractive proposition for farmers, since we are offering larger and more secure financial support to advance soil health goals on their farms.

Objective 1: Train farmers in soil health tools, technology, and field management techniques 

Participating farmers will be trained to take soil tests and will learn record-keeping management using the OpenTEAM suite of tools.  Farmers will send in soil samples to Cornell Soil Health Laboratory, who will measure a comprehensive array of physical, biological, and chemical soil attributes, including aggregate stability, organic matter, microbial respiration, and nutrient levels. 

In the farm’s first year, a member of MFT/WNC teams will visit each farm twice throughout the year to provide hands-on training to farmers on how to take soil samples and utilize an OpenTEAM technology called SurveyStack, a platform for data collection, record keeping, and sharing. The data collected in SurveyStack can automatically transfer to FarmOS for participants that opt to use both platforms. In subsequent years of the program, farmers will be sent the materials needed to collect samples, but farmers will do so on their own. All samples will be collected in the fall for consistency with the collection schedule for Pasa.

Objective 2:  Take thorough soil health measurements and collect management data 

Each participating farmer commits to a streamlined process for taking soil health measurements and data collection.  Three fields or pastures will be selected for monitoring, with oversight from the MFT/WNC team, and should be similar enough to be able to loosely treat them as replicates; they should have the same soil type and texture, similar management strategies, and a similar land use history.  Management practices on these fields will be tracked using an Excel spreadsheet or SurveyStack, and include: 1) tillage, cultivation, and any farm operations involving soil disturbance or compaction; 2) planting and termination dates for crops and cover crops, and 3) application dates and quantities for all fertilizers and soil amendments (Pasa, 2018).  Measurements will be taken for aggregate stability, organic matter, microbial respiration, and nutrient levels of the soil from each field.   All soil samples will be sent to Cornell Soil Health Laboratory for a comprehensive assessment. 

Soil sampling equipment was purchased using budgeted SARE funds in Fall 2021, prior to soil testing:
- Two shovels
- Two Tarps
- Permanent Markers
- Two Tape measures
- Gallon plastic bags for sampling
- Gaiia Maps for recording GPS coordinates of sample locations and field boundaries

All soil sampling went smoothly aside from Ketch Farms (see note below).  The farmers chose their fields prior to sampling. Soil sampling support staff taught farms how to soil sample for sampling next year. 

Soil samples were taken from the following farms in fall of 2021:

Balfour Farm (Pittsfield, Maine) - dairy

Soil sampling at Balfour Farm

Bumbleroot Farm (Windham, Maine) - diversified veggies

Soil sampling at Bumbleroot
Soil sampling at Bumbleroot
Soil sampling at Bumbleroot
Soil sampling at Bumbleroot

The Milkhouse (Monmouth, Maine) - dairy

Soil sampling at the Milkhouse
Soil sampling at the Milkhouse
Soil sampling at the Milkhouse

Songbird Farm (Unity, Maine) - diversified veggies and small grains - As noted above, Songbird Farm has decided to leave the Network as of January 2022.  All soil health test results from Fall 2021 will still be communicated to the farm. 

South Paw Farm (Freedom, Maine) - diversified veggies

Two Coves Farm (Harpswell, Maine) - livestock ( cattle, sheep, hens)

Soil sampling at Two Coves
Soil sampling at Two Coves
Soil sampling at Two Coves
Soil sampling at Two Coves

Erickson Fields (Rockport, Maine)- diversified veggies

Wolfe's Neck Center (Freeport, Maine) - Veg - WNC is a non profit collaborator, meaning we sample with them and Pasa will generate the reports, but WNC is responsible for payment

Aldemere Farm (Rockport, Maine) - cattle -   non profit collaborator, meaning we sample with them and Pasa will generate the reports, but Aldemere is responsible for payment  

Ketch Farms (Aroostook County, Maine): We were unable to sample at Ketch farms due to weather.  Andrew Ketch has decided to back out of the Network as of January 2022. 


Objective 3:  Submit local data to Pasa’s Soil Health Benchmark Study for farmers to compare and learn about their soils

The Maine Soil Health Network has been accepted as an official member of Pasa’s Soil Health Benchmark Study, a large multi-year study where soil health and management practices will be compared to other similar farms, and each farm’s own past results, in an annual report.  Pasa’s Soil Health Benchmark Study is a citizen-science project that began in 2016 that lets farmers comprehensively assess the health of their soils and see how their soil health data compares to the data of their peers. By identifying soil health benchmarks, this project gives farmers a clearer picture of whether their sustainable soil health management techniques are achieving their intended results, or if there is room for improvement.

Farmers will submit their soil management data in the winter months, and receive a report analyzing their soil test results in the spring as part of Pasa’s Soil Health Benchmark Study. Pasa staff scientists organize this data and generate three additional management indicators: 1) days of living cover, 2) tillage intensity, and 3) organic inputs. These indicators provide a snapshot of some of the farm management practices that most influence soil health (Pasa, 2018). This grant would cover the costs of soil tests and report production for farms in the program.

MFT and WNC will organize farmer forums and field visits to discuss soil health management strategies and collaborate to develop innovative yet practical solutions to common soil health issues. Farmers will be encouraged to learn from their data and management practices of their peers both in the Maine cohort and within the benchmark study as a whole with fellow farmer cohorts in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Project funds will enable farmers to travel and learn at regional workshops, conferences and other events.


Objective 4:  Coordinate ongoing farmer outreach, education, and collaborative engagement  

Each cohort of the Maine Soil Health Network will be required to attend 3-4 meetings per year to collaboratively discuss observations, challenges, management practices, soil test results, and to get support with the technological and record keeping tools. These meetings would take place in a ‘digital coffee shop’ format and at on-farm field days in the summer. These workshops and gatherings will provide the opportunity for farmers to connect with a learning community of peers who are working to devise practical solutions to soil health challenges. Each workshop will include facilitated discussions as well as space for providing feedback on the program. Once the farmers are on-boarded and have gone through Year 1 of the program, the workshops will focus more on the results of the benchmark study, comparing their soils and practices to each other and to their own farms throughout time.


Objective 5: Develop a peer-to-peer network of farmers interested in soil health and climate resilience, to support one another and share field management techniques 

Through the Soil Health Network, WNC and MFT seek to advance integrated farmer approaches to the adoption of climate smart health practices beyond the scope of the participating cohort to the general farmer population in Maine. A launch event at the Milkhouse in June, followed by Farmer-to-Farmer event held at Bumbleroot Farm in fall 2021 will be tailored to the different agricultural sectors in Maine to bring in national expertise, inspire farmer participation in the Soil Health Network, and share information and results from the program. In summer 2022, two Farmer-to-Farmer events will be held at different Soil Health Network farm sites implementing a wide range of soil health practices in order to share information on soil health and financial outcomes.

An additional winter gathering will be held at the Ecology School, located in Saco, Maine. This convening would be held in Year 2 of the program (January 2023), depending on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic. The retreat will provide an opportunity for the farms in the network to spend time together during the off-season, and to learn from each other and from outside experts on topics identified by the group. Some topics that have already been identified through conversations with the farmers include a session on accessing funds for soil health through NRCS co-led by local NRCS district conservationist, Helena Swiatek. In addition, farmers in the network have expressed interest in understanding the current state of carbon sequestration research for annual crop and livestock farms, and we’d like to invite UMaine researchers who have recently published a paper on carbon sequestration potential in agriculture in Maine to spend a workshop with our network. Other topics will be identified through a group survey and conversations during fall soil testing. We also know it is important for the group to simply spend time together and learn from each other in facilitated conversation with the help of the Ecology School’s educators. We expect 1-2 representatives from each of the 16 participating farms will attend the Friday-Sunday gathering.

Participation Summary
8 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 Online trainings
2 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

25 Farmers participated
12 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

A key component of this project is facilitating shared learning between the members of the Soil Health Network, making outreach a foundational element of the work.  In 2021 we hosted two farmer-to-farmer events at participating farms to share soil health management practices and information on the network with other farmers.  The first was held at Maine Milkhouse on June 22nd to celebrate the launch of the Maine Soil Health Network, and included a tour of the Milkhouse fields and a discussion of the soil health practices that they're implementing, led by Milkhouse farmers Caitlin Frame and Andy Smith.  The second was held at Bumbleroot Farm on September 30th, with also included a farm tour led by owner Melissa Law.   

In the early months of the project, Leah Puro hosted two "open office hours" online sessions for farmers seeking assistance in data entry into SurveyStack.  The first session was held on December 16th, the second one was hosted on January 12th, 2022. 

We planned and hosted 2 of 4 of a webinar series for farmers focused on soil health, climate adaptation strategies and government cost share and incentive programs.  The first webinar scheduled for the first week in January, 2022 was canceled due to lack of participation. Project leads decided to host this workshop next year when we have more farmers enrolled in the Maine Soil Health Network.  

Soil test results from Fall 2021 were received January 19, 2022.  The second online training webinar will wake place on January 27th to review the raw data hosted.  Bruce Hoskins and Jason Lilly from the University of Maine will teach how to read and interpret these soil tests.  

While we had excellent farmer turnout at the in-person farmer-to-farmer events, project leads have been disappointed in lack of attendance of the online offerings thus far.  We found that while we did set expectations for participating farmers around attending these webinars as part of their involvement in the Soil Health Network, the online format is challenging for holding farmers accountable.  In 2022, we plan on focusing on in-person sessions as a means of increasing attendance.  If the pandemic again requires sessions to be held online, we will  send out Doodle polls prior to scheduling the sessions in order to gauge better understanding of farmer availability.  

We plan to host another 2 farmer-to-farmer events in the summer of 2022 for continued network-building, information sharing, and general outreach for the project. 

Additional outreach activities include creation of a webpage for the Soil Health Network, including quarterly blog posts to share updates and activities. In early spring of 2022 we plan to utilize these communications channels to share results from the benchmark study, which will be available after soil testing is completed.

 

 

Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

January 2022 - No learning outcomes reported thus far in the project.  Surveys to be taken by farmers later in the season to gauge learning outcomes.  

Project Outcomes

1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$75,000.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.