New England Grazing Network and the Power of Partnerships

New England Grazing Network and the Power of Partnerships

Whether from the rolling green mountains of Northern Vermont or the coastal farms of Midcoast Maine, attendees of New England Grazing Network’s (NEGN) annual NE Grazing and Livestock Conference flocked to Amherst, Massachusetts in late January of this year to connect, share knowledge, and make plans for advancing regenerative grazing management as a viable and sustainable approach to farming and a valued part of regional food systems.

Launched in 2019, and facilitated by Wolfe’s Neck Center, NEGN is a growing group of grazing and livestock-focused technical assistance providers, membership-based and advocacy organizations across the six New England states dedicated to supporting and enhancing the practices of sustainable grazing across the region.

NEGN Partners focus on knowledge and resource sharing, outreach, community-building, and shared strategic leadership to align around common measurements and a shared vision for a strong, diverse grazing livestock food system in the region. Wolfe’s Neck Center participates as a Partner and facilitator, managing communications, grants and finance, administration, and convening the annual conference. This model empowers NEGN Partners to address critical issues on a regional scale while also supporting and building on local efforts.

This year’s conference entitled “Gathering of Good Graziers” took place from January 24 to 27 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It was co-led by NEGN partner organizations and the Northeast Pasture Consortium. The Conference brought together over 300 people from across the region, including experienced and beginning farmers, representatives of farmer-support organizations (non-profits, state and federal agencies, and university extension), and researchers. Wolfe’s Neck Center was pleased to have many staff members facilitating, speaking, and attending the Conference.

According to Tom Prohl, Senior Manager of Farm Operations and Systems, knowledge-sharing networks like NEGN are invaluable to the success of any agricultural transformation to address the improvement and maintenance of grazing pastures’ soil-based ecosystems.

For Eliza Baker-Wacks, OpenTEAM Hub & Network Tech Coordinator at Wolfe’s Neck Center, the conference was a terrific way for her to connect directly with farmers. “The NEGN conference provided a great opportunity for me to connect with farmers [in person] across New England and talk about our upcoming work and the tech tools we are working to design. Right now, we are looking for farmer feedback on a variety of projects, including the user interface for the Ag Data Wallet, which will be a tool for farmers to securely store and transfer their data to different groups like an organic certifier, a marketplace, etc.”, she said. Despite the ability to connect remotely in current work environments, the Conference highlighted the value of in-person connections. “It is much easier to explain our complex projects to farmers in person and gauge their understanding and interest in real time. I learned a lot about the best ways to communicate with farmers and other partners about our work”, said Baker-Wacks. As part of Wolfe’s Neck Center’s Action for Climate-Smart Agriculture project supported by the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, our team is working to support farms across the country to implement sustainable practices by providing financial incentives, technical assistance, and enhancing regional market demand for sustainable commodities. Our ability to deploy this national project effectively depends on regional networks and collaborations. Building relationships and understanding of regional context through convenings like NEGN are critical to our ability to meet the goals of the project.

“My work is currently focused on identifying regional food systems to invest in that have some market-facing component, whether they are producing for wholesale, CSAs, hubs, or are producing within a commodity supply chain”, explains Karna Ray, Wolfe’s Neck Center’s Northeast Markets Program Manager. “Attending the conference allowed me to engage with some folks who are building this regional food infrastructure to get a sense of how [this] program on the East Coast can fit in with their imperatives.”

For many farmers, the prospect of adopting and optimizing new regenerative practices continues to present a host of seemingly insurmountable challenges. The foundational practices for such transformations are informed by historical weather patterns, climate norms, and shifting ecological dynamics. This means advanced technologies and in-depth place-based knowledge are critical. Networks like NEGN provide a more collaborative and effective approach to advancing a shared vision for the future of food, farming and the planet than one organization or institution going it alone.

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