Reflections: Pasa’s Winter Conference

Conference attendees pose for a photo at Pasa’s 2023 Sustainable Agriculture Conference. Credit: Dani Fresh for Pasa Sustainable Agriculture

As an OpenTEAM Fellow based at Pasa Sustainable Agriculture I had the opportunity to experience Pasa’s annual winter conference. The origins of the organization lead back to Pasa’s very first conference in 1992, started and organized by farmers who were looking to share learnings and explore sustainable agriculture together. Today, the conference continues to be a time for farmers to reunite year after year and to meet new faces, gathering in the spirit of sharing, listening, and learning. The relationships the Pasa community stewards all year long come alive during the conference. You can’t help but feel the deep sense of community, the buzz of mutual admiration, curiosity, and hope continuing to weave a tapestry each year, telling the story of Pasa. While this group spends three days in sessions on a variety of topics, it is clear when they are not indoors at the conference, they are taking these learnings and inspiration as fuel to keep moving closer to the shared vision of “a world where agriculture nourishes, heals, and empowers.”

Prior to the official conference kick off, Pasa’s long standing Soil Health Benchmark Study research team and partner organizations Future Harvest and Maine Farmland Trust held a gathering for farmer research collaborators to connect and discuss their annual soil test results. They heard from Cornell Soil Health Lab about how to read their annual soil test lab results and listened to the stories of diversified vegetable, row crop & grain, and pastured livestock research participants about their operations and how the study has helped to improve their soil health over the years. The gathering also facilitated farmer to farmer learning circles. Young farmers seeking the sage advice of established producers, older farmers proudly sharing their story as humble stewards of the land improving their soil one season at a time. Be it vegetables, row crops, or pasture a key theme for building soil health was planting a diversity of crops to capture as much sunlight as possible to feed the soil carbon cycle.

Beginning the conference alongside the keen curiosity of the soil health study’s farmer participants set the tone for an engaging few days. As an OpenTEAM Fellow, the conference was an incredible opportunity to support Pasa’s team, partners, farmers, and food system professionals in sharing stories and knowledge. The sessions throughout the conference provided fodder for exploration. High Mowing Organic Seeds spoke about the vital need for farmer feedback to build regional resilience by developing seed varieties that thrive amidst increasing climate challenges and the opportunity for farmers to diversify their income through producing seeds. Different sessions covered the value and importance of digital tools and data collection, be it to advance equitable access to nutritional food at farmer’s markets and farm stands, revitalizing a local fibershed, advancing research on biodiversity, or tracking farm management practices to increase soil health as we often talk about at OpenTEAM. 

The highlight of the conference was the simple act of being together with Pasa staff, Pasa community farmers, and bonding with colleagues from Our Sci, Wolfe’s Neck Center, and OpenTEAM. This community is filled with individuals who are early adopters, change seekers, and innovative thinkers. There’s a deep sense of optimism for the future. Everyone here is opting in to make this wild world we inhabit with one another and all the other species not just a better place but one in which all thrive. Coming together is a reminder that this vision we are all working towards is slowly becoming a reality as we continue to show up for one another. 
The OpenTEAM Fellows Program operates with significant support from a $730,000 grant by the Walmart Foundation.

Pasa Leads Community Science Research Initiative Through Soil Health Benchmarking Study

Pasa, a Pennsylvania-based sustainable agriculture association, started out as a small group of Pennsylvania farmers interested in collecting and sharing their own resources and experiences around sustainable farming in the early 1990s. Since then, Pasa has invested in farm-based research, farmer training, and events and conferences about sustainable agricultural practices to support farmers and ranchers in bettering their communities and the environment.

While developing their research initiatives in recent years, Pasa found that many farmers had questions about their soil health and how it compared to other farms. In 2016, they launched a trial soil health benchmarking study, the first of its kind in the United States. Through this study, Pasa created an avenue for Pennsylvania farmers to collect, assess, and learn from soil health data that can assist them in their own management decisions.

After one year, the trial became an official research initiative of Pasa called the Soil Health Benchmarking Study. Since then, the study has grown to include several other partners representing hundreds of farmers and ranchers, including members of OpenTEAM such as Million Acre Challenge. Each year, farmers’ soils are tested and analyzed using the Cornell Soil Health Test, which provides insight beyond what most average soil health tests can give. Then, Pasa aggregates this data and provides farmers with individualized reports that give them a breakdown of their results and benchmarks them against their peers.

“It’s not enough to get the soil test results though,” says Sarah Bay Nawa, Research Coordinator for Pasa, “We want to figure out how farming practices and soil health outcomes correlate. We need management records that include equipment activity, planting, harvest dates, grazing, etc…” To truly understand soil health, one has to understand how the land is being used.

By collecting additional management records, Pasa is making headway on insights into the connections between farming practices and soil health outcomes. Farmers choose to share their management records with different tools. Some are using SurveyStack from Our Sci and farmOS, two tools from the OpenTEAM ecosystem, to share their data directly with researchers. For example, SurveyStack provides farmers with an online survey with pre-populated answers, making it easier to collect, store and compare data from farms across the network. These responses can then be fed into farmOS automatically, allowings farmers to track their farm management, planning, and record keeping digitally. When farmers use tools such as these, researchers can ensure that all data is entered in the same format for easier sharing and analysis. 

As the study continues to grow, more and more farmers across the Eastern United States are actively participating by sampling their soils and sharing farm management records to learn how they can improve upon their own operations to build better soil health. The Maine Soil Health Network, led by Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment and Maine Farmland Trust, recently joined the study with their own regional cohorts. Now, more than 100 farms in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Maine are contributing soil health and management data to the study.

This year marks the sixth year of the study. As changes in soil health are slow, Pasa hopes to continue the study for at least ten years. Bay Nawa is excited about the future of the study, “Through this, we hope that farmers are able to make really strategic decisions about how they manage their farm to improve soil health. And, maybe see the beginning signs of that change soon.”

Stonyfield Hub Introduces Grazing Group For Network Farms

Stonyfield Organic is one of 15 hubs who are using OpenTEAM’s suite of tools to help their farmers track and improve soil health and carbon sequestration. Back in 2019, Stonyfield announced their goal to cut their carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. With over half of their carbon emissions coming from agriculture, Stonyfield is using OpenTEAM to establish soil health baselines, better assess change over time, and ultimately reduce their impact on climate change.

Jane Kuhn manages OpenTEAM engagement among 10 participating Network farms in Stonyfield’s direct supply. She and the network farms are completing their second season trialing OpenTEAM tools. “I was delighted for the opportunity to work with and learn from Stonyfield who has established themselves as a pioneer in creating positive change in our food system,” she says.

Led by Kuhn, Stonyfield, as a Hub, is investigating how to best track their farms’ soil health and monitor improvements over time through OpenTEAM. By looking at different management plans and testing OpenTEAM tools such as SoilStack, PastureMap, Cool Farm Tool, COMET, and LandPKS, Stonyfield farmers can find what works best for them and then translate those explorations into different management strategies that improve their soil health and pasture nutrition—thus building climate resilience.

This past year, Kuhn has worked to further support what the Network farms are doing. With help from some New England dairy and grazing experts, Kuhn has created a grazing group where Stonyfield’s Network farms can develop deeper connections with one another and further their own goals in relation to OpenTEAM. Through this group, participating farms are able to connect and collaborate with one another to help them make meaningful changes and improvements in their own farm management systems.

“Facilitating that peer-to-peer learning and having experts in the room to field questions and offer advice is really how we and the farmers can make the most of what we’re learning through OpenTEAM,” says Kuhn.

The group meets once a month and is facilitated by Cheryl Cesario, a Grazing Outreach Professional at the University of Vermont Extension, and Sarah Flack, an author and consultant of grass based and organic livestock production.

Recently, the group has begun to bring in outside speakers on particular topics as a way to broaden expertise that is available to Network farms. By fostering partnerships through this grazing group, Stonyfield hopes farmers will find support in learning how to utilize the data and observations they are collecting to actually create positive changes on their own farms. 

As Stonyfield’s Network farms finish out their second year as a part of the OpenTEAM initiative, Kuhn is hopeful for the future of their grazing group and OpenTEAM as a whole.

“The learnings that can come from the OpenTEAM community are more rich and insightful than if the work was done independently…. We really feel like we can go farther and faster together than we can on our own,” says Kuhn, “Collaborating with other Hubs, tools, and the whole OpenTEAM ecosystem enables us to make forward progress more quickly and more holistically because there are more perspectives at the table.”