Author: Charlie Baker

Amidst the crisp dawn of a new year on Wolfe’s Neck, our campus has been brimming with stimulating conversation and renewed excitement over sustainable agriculture’s potential in our era of intensifying social, political, and environmental transformation. Indeed, over the past weeks, Wolfe’s Neck Center (WNC) staff have been ringing in the new year alongside rich discussions of a new strategic framework that will guide our path across 2024 and beyond. And yet, in focusing on the problems of climate change and an existing food system under critical strain, we continue to emphasize regenerative agriculture practices as foundational for a broader turn toward Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA).

Against such a fitting backdrop, it feels appropriate that we now endeavor to highlight key aspects of our regenerative approach and consider them in relation to our mission of fostering a new, more sustainable agri-food system.

Though commonly understood as referring to ‘sustainable’ farming practices that aim to improve soil health and revitalize ecosystems, there is, in fact, no formal definition for ‘regenerative agriculture’. Of course, here at WNC, we consider regenerative agriculture as “a holistic, place-based approach to farming and food that prioritizes a healthy environment”, while acknowledging the validity and legitimacy of various practical forms. Verily, few today would earnestly deny that the true conceptual landscape of ‘regenerative agriculture’ is bound in discursive tradition, where articulations of meaning and method vary across communities of practice and constellations of perspective. Nevertheless, the general emphasis of regenerative farming on enhancing ecological function helps farmers revitalize the carbon sequestration capacities of their soil-based ecosystems, making it a formidable means of addressing climate change.

The core tenets of Climate-Smart Agriculture, on the other hand, enjoy a wider renown, outlining a far more comprehensive project for agricultural transformation. While regenerative practices may provide the necessary tools for change, CSA envisions a comprehensive model for expanding food cultivation in a way that ameliorates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions long associated with agriculture—one that expands local production capacities through regenerative, community-oriented farming systems that harness the undulating rhythms of natural ecologies in their local contexts. Today, it is our view that the most successful models for CSA will be predicated upon a foundation of regenerative practices, whereby regenerative systems serve as the functional mechanisms for enhancing carbon sequestration capacities while elevating local production capabilities and ensuring food security for an ever-growing population.

When regenerative practices center around re-constructing farming systems to work in parallel with the natural systems underpinning our earthly world, the various soil-based ecosystems that underlie production grounds and grazing pastures become inherent beneficiaries.

Across the production grounds and grazing pastures of Wolfe’s Neck, our regenerative practices aid in maintaining the healthy functioning of our vital soil-based ecosystems while also helping to nourish the rich biodiversity that characterizes our coastal Maine setting; they help our farmers identify and leverage the layered interactions between all components—both environmental and agricultural—that underlie our 626-acre organic farm. And yet, the relevance of our work reverberates well beyond our campus.  For taken together and adjusted to scale, such practices will further equip farmers to help stymie—and adapt to the effects of—accelerating climate change and food insecurity. Indeed, the maintenance of thriving, resilient agricultural ecosystems with rich soils is vital for sustainable, climate-smart food production on a larger scale. For these reasons, we continue to see regenerative farming as the ideal framework for a nationwide turn toward climate-smart agriculture and the ascendence of a more sustainable agri-food system.


Regenerative Practices at WNC

Of course, with the dawn of every spring season, WNC comes alive with the arrival of excited visitors, a variety of educational programs and events, and a bursting of vibrant greenery. For our crop and livestock farmers, however, something even more exciting happens: the very earth beneath our feet becomes a canvas for experimentation and innovation, as our teams begin to re-engage in cultivating rich, resilient soil health. Verily, each new season brings an opportunity to refine our regenerative practices, and the recent years have been no exception.

With our emphasis on fostering regenerative-based, climate-smart agriculture, the farmers here have largely focused on the following practices (1) reducing tillage and minimizing soil disturbance; (2) maximizing crop diversity in grow areas; (3) using cover crops; and (4) applying rotational grazing practices for livestock. Indeed, maintaining soil health has been a particular focus for the fruit and vegetable team, while rotational grazing practices have helped our dairy managers to the same end. In addition, new insights into alternative cattle feeds show the potential to further mitigate our methane emissions and overall climate impact.

The fruit and vegetable production operation at WNC has the particular distinction of being 100 percent chemical-free—a rare practice even within the realm of organic farming. Over the recent years, our fruit and vegetable production team has continued its commitment to reducing tillage and preserving soil health through the application of practices that seek to boost underlying ecosystems’ resiliencies and abilities to sustain production capabilities. And of course, constituting the basis of any production garden, the most significant of these are the soil-based ecosystems that are rich in organic matter and instilled with capacities for carbon sequestration.

Soil itself has long played an essential role in the carbon cycle, regulating our climate by sustaining a variety of complex ecosystems and functions. These soil-based ecosystems arise from an array of organic and inorganic components’ continuous interactions, through which rich organic matter is sustained. Much of modern agricultural practice, however, has now tilled extraordinary swaths of ground soil, depleting it of its carbon-based organic matter and rendering it less able to draw in and store additional atmospheric carbon. What’s more, with each new tract of soil tilled, already-sequestered carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Our approach, therefore, has emphasized reducing tillage and maintaining soil health as foundational to operating with land use sustainability and climate resiliency.

According to Farm Operations Manager, Tom Prohl, the fruit and vegetable team has been able to reduce tillage across their production grounds by almost 50 percent over the past five years. As one might expect, a main driver of over tillage in organic farming is the need to periodically clear out excessive weed growth. To address this, our fruit and vegetable team has turned to landscape fabric as a way of dampening weed growth without disturbing ground soils through manual weeding practices. Likewise, ‘cover cropping’ has also been an important tool for building better soil health across our production grounds for almost a decade. A variety of cover crops—particularly, clover, oats, peas, sudan grass, and rye—have been used to build soil organic matter and prevent erosion.

The magic in all of this can be noted in the fact that the application of these regenerative practices has created positive reinforcing cycles for production garden resiliency, as our farmers employ natural processes to tailor a food production system that works in better harmony with nature’s rhythms. Indeed, the application of fabrics and the integration of particular cover crops and irrigation intervals have mitigated soil erosion trends while simultaneously helping to reduce fossil fuel usage, attract pollinators, dampen weed growth, and fix (or ‘isolate’) atmospheric nitrogen. All of this has been vital to our fruit and veg team’s success in improving their agri-ecosystem’s sustainability and resiliency. But of course, there is more to the rich tapestry of regenerative agriculture that characterizes our organic production operation here at WNC.

Beyond the reduction of tillage and improvement of soil health, the team has also taken a variety of steps toward improving the production garden’s resiliency through additional regenerative practices—particularly that of ‘crop diversification’. Crop diversification refers to the practice of increasing the number of crop families across a production garden to enrich the surrounding ecosystem in ways that further improve and reinforce organic production. Overall, crop diversification strategies have also augmented positive reinforcing cycles for the fruit and veg agri-ecosystem’s resiliency, adding structural buffers while increasing and sustaining biodiversity across a longer seasonal span. To this end, the fruit and vegetable team planted hundreds of beach plum trees in a hedge row across the garden in 2016. In a powerful display of complexity, today, this single additional crop has led to a broader strengthening of the fruit and vegetable system and its ability to naturally reinforce its own production capacities in manifold ways.

Beach Plums are early to flower relative to other crops across the production garden, and this flowering helps bring pollinators that may otherwise arrive later in the growing season. What’s more, the trees also bring bird species into a closer relationship with the production grounds, helping to regulate soft-bodied pest populations that can be detrimental to production yields. Their deep-root systems have also improved drainage across the garden, and their tall height serves as a barrier to damaging winds, which can be especially problematic across coastal farming environments.

The fruit and vegetable production gardens here at WNC, however, are just one of two major aspects of our organic farming operation. Wolfe’s Neck Center is also home to a thriving dairy operation in which regenerative practices are also being applied and tested for optimal usage. Of course, even on a smaller scale, livestock farming is more widely implicated as contributing to GHG emissions than organic crop production. Thus, applying regenerative practices to livestock operations is especially important for the realization of a broader-scale transformation toward climate-smart agriculture.

Much like non-regenerative tillage practices for fruit and vegetable production, the conventional practices of employing continuous grazing patterns can have deleterious effects on the soil-based ecosystems underlying pastures. While it is easy to see how the application of continuous grazing patterns can lead to soil compaction over periods of livestock trampling, there are several other harmful effects. The loss of vegetation cover and the dehydration of pasture-based soils are also common drawbacks. Altogether, these processes contribute to the eventual loss of soil organic matter and its microbial mass that is central to a soil-based ecosystem’s carbon sequestration capacities. Seeking to address this, the livestock farmers of WNC have been experimenting with ‘rotational grazing’ patterns and new agri-technologies that can help maximize the soil health benefits of such practices.

Rotational grazing practices center around the partitioning of large pastures into smaller ‘paddocks’, where livestock animals are confined for a given amount of time before rotating onward to another paddock. Because rest periods for pastures can do much to mitigate the negative soil health impacts associated with livestock grazing, rotational patterns allow sections of pastures to rest and regenerate before they cycle back into use. However, the major challenge here is a timing-related one, for rotational grazing is knowledge-intensive, and cycling at an optimal frequency requires the farmer to manage the temporal variables of paddock regrowth, livestock demands, and seasonal land availability.

In tackling the rotational grazing puzzle, WNC’s dairy team has been experimenting with a new agri-technology over the past year aimed at optimizing rotational timing. A sonar-based instrument known as PaddockTrac is being used to gauge grass height and identify the best rotational timing intervals, generating 50 forage height readings per second, as it is moved across grazing pastures. PaddockTrac is designed to be mounted on a four-wheeler, which has long been used by the dairy team at WNC to move throughout grazing pastures.

And yet, though rotational grazing helps mitigate the harmful effects of continuous practices, soil disturbance is only one component of livestock farming’s climate-negative impact. On a larger scale, methane (CH4) emissions from cattle are held to be a substantial contributor to global GHG emissions and a significant problem in attempts to address climate change.

Given WNC’s organic dairy farming emphasis, our efforts have grown to include investigations into practices that could meaningfully address the climate impact of methane emissions associated with dairy cattle. In fact, we are particularly proud to highlight that 2023 saw the formal publication of results from one of our cornerstone research collaborations. Known as the Coast-Cow-Consumer Project (C3), the investigation was initially launched in the fall of 2021 in conjunction with Bigelow Laboratory and sought to measure the effects of Chondrus crispus (a type of seaweed) on both methane (CH4) emissions and the resulting quality of overall milk production. Furthermore, it also sought to gauge Maine organic dairy farmers’ receptiveness to integrating this alternative diet into their dairy operations. Results from the study were formally published in the journal Frontiers of Veterinary Science in July of 2023. 

Today, we are pleased to report that the findings confirm the potential of Chondrus crispus as a promising supplement to reduce enteric methane emissions in lactating cows without adverse effects on milk production. This may come to offer a sustainable solution within the Maine dairy farming sector to address environmental concerns and move further toward climate-smart practices.

While grazing requirements for dairy farming can be degrading to underlying and abutting ecosystems, leveraging Coastal Maine’s abundant supply of seaweed to supplement grass-based diets may have multifaceted benefits. While it has the potential to substantially mitigate methane emissions from cows, such a practice would also bring livestock into a closer relationship with their coastal Maine environment.


Looking Ahead

From crop diversification to innovations in rotational grazing practice, it is easy to see how the regenerative practices we employ—when scaled properly—can boost local organic production capacities for farming operations of all sizes, while (1) degrading fewer acres of given natural landscapes, preserving biodiversity and (2) minimizing soil degradation, protecting the natural sequestration capacities of soil-based ecosystems. Altogether, these practices help foster a climate-positive system of agriculture that expands opportunities for food production in ways tailored to specific environments and their communities.

As a new year sets in, we remain unwavering in our commitment to furthering the production of knowledge and innovation at the intersections of agriculture, ecology, and climatology. Today, the union of science, technology, and regenerative practice is hastening a broader turn toward farming systems that shift away from a need to significantly alter natural environments for production, as emphases move towards better integration with the surrounding natural world and its processes. Indeed, from a functioning soil ecosystem’s carbon sequestration capacity to the hydro cycle that all living organisms depend on, the processes of natural systems have played principal roles in regulating our climate and in reinforcing the biodiversity that enriches our world.

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