OpenTEAM Shares Progress Report for 2021

Over the last 3 years of collaboration, OpenTEAM has collectively designed the functional core and framework for transparency in our agricultural system and laid the groundwork to accelerate future development of a technology ecosystem that is responsive to the needs of end users. This framework is not theoretical—it is built and actively used by a diverse global network of farms, ranches and other organizations.

This past year, we grew the OpenTEAM community—reaching 250 active skilled professionals in their field from over 45 organizations across the globe. We have expanded our capacity by developing new approaches to collaboration, integrated an equity lens into our work, advanced our internship program, and strengthened support for our Hub & Network farms and ranches. Our deeper co-working sessions have vitalized diverse communities of practice such as our Technology, Hub & Network, and Human Centered Design teams, leading to the development of the OpenTEAM Collabathon series. These series focus on particular workstreams with collaborative sprints toward long range shared goals and expand our community’s capacity to dive deeper into building an open global technological ecosystem for agriculture. Through this work, we are working to equip future food systems leaders to generate a new way of approaching agriculture and regenerative farming systems.

In 2022, we are further developing the community by strengthening our network and community and supporting the growing number of Hub & Network farms and ranches. We continue to invest in long-term projects like a digital coffeeshop by Our Sci, a social coordination platform for regenerative agriculture communities with Hylo and Terran Collective, an ag data wallet concept for land stewards to manage, share and control their data, and an API switchboard to facilitate interoperability in the OpenTEAM ecosystem across diverse use cases. By creating feedback mechanisms, providing training on tools and adding additional capacity, we hope to create stronger systems of support and bridge the gaps farmers and ranchers currently face within the OpenTEAM technology ecosystem.

Through this collaborative ecosystem of diverse communities and technologies, OpenTEAM is defining a new way to approach technology in agriculture.
Read the full report below.

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Bridging Indigenous Knowledge with Research in Malawi

Michigan State University is one of OpenTEAM’s original member organizations from 2019. The Michigan State University Hub, located in Malawi, is led by Dr. Sieglinde Snapp, professor of soils and cropping systems ecology and Associate Director of the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations. In Malawi, they are working to build farmer-centric networks of extension officers, researchers, and farmers to generate a new way of working in agriculture that bridges farmers’ indigenous knowledge and researchers’ understanding of soils to create a better functioning farm.

The Malawi Hub is based out of the MSU Global Change Learning Lab, which facilitates agroecology research throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The co-learning lab is providing a platform where researchers can make long-term observations while interacting directly with farmers through on-farm experiments. Dr. Snapp was inspired to create this learning lab when she first visited the area in 1993.

“I could see that traditional approaches to understanding agriculture and soils were just not working. The idea of sending in soil samples from a small-scale farm, who were very poor farmers, and then they would somehow have to analyze the information sent back, it just seemed untenable,” she says. 

Dr. Snapp, along with others, decided to rethink how they approached agricultural research through the Global Change Learning Lab. “I realized more and more science is done on just a few research stations that aren’t very related to the real world. There are huge gaps between researchers and farmers,” she states. They needed to find a way that was more farmer-centric and took into account farmers’ own capabilities to enact new processes on their farms.

Researchers developed new methods to reverse the usual top-down approach by having farmers inform and contextualize the research that is happening, ultimately making each farm they work with a research farm. Using this participatory research method, researchers interact directly with those who actually manage the land. Informed by this, researchers can provide farmers with options that can improve their agricultural practices while being conducive to their needs and capabilities.

This is realized by Dr. Snapp’s innovative “mother-baby” trial design that links farmer-led and researcher-led research together. Through this, farmers’ own knowledge and choices inform the research happening at the university level and farmers themselves can be exposed to a wider range of ideas and options.

“It’s a way of communication, that what farmers choose tells researchers something about which practices farmers like the best and how farmers adapt things is a way for researchers to learn. What is in the mother trial, that has all the options, is a way for farmers to be exposed to a wider range of options,” says Dr. Snapp. 

This newer way of thinking creates positive feedback loops where farmers’ choices inform research and the research informs the farmers’ choices. Creating a process where farmers and researchers can learn from each other in a multi-faceted way.

Current research at the Malawi Hub focuses on giving farmers options in the field as they learn about their soil health. Over the past year, Malawi extension educators went to a thousand farmers and walked the fields with them, using the reflectometer tool provided by Our Sci, to give real time data on soil carbon status. This was the start of a conversation with farmers, asking what farmer’s observed. If farmers had observed issues such as parasitic weeds like ‘striga’, also called witchweed, and other signs of degradation, then options for soil rehabilitation were discussed. By knowing certain characteristics of a farmer’s soil, the educators can suggest options that farmers can try to fix their soil health. Exploring options and engaging in learning together is the start of an entirely new way to do research, a farmer-centric and community based approach.

Dr. Snapp looks forward to developing more interoperability within the OpenTEAM tech ecosystem to better support this participatory research model, such as e-surveys for systematic feedback, the development of apps that allow farmers to find each other and share options that have worked on their farms, and documentation of their soil status through LandPKS and other applications. This is just the beginning, as the Malawi Hub continues to grow in building out its farmer-centric processes and methods. 

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.”

Hub Spotlight: Compost at Paicines Ranch

Paicines Ranch in Central Valley, California, is a historic ranch raising grass-fed beef with an emphasis on agroecological, holistic management and research. Part of their work has included the development of a number of composting systems, including a vermiculture composter, a system similar to a fermented bokashi composter, and an aerated compost bioreactor.

The continuous flow-through worm bin is used to compost food scraps from on-site events and living. This design allows for continuous feeding of the compost, and a cutting bar is used to remove finished worm castings from the bottom. State regulations in California only allow us to compost agricultural byproducts, but worms qualify as livestock, so this is how Paicines is dealing with food scraps. Ultimately, this product will likely be added to foliar sprays, and into the seed-coat-slurry that we apply before planting.

Paicines employs the SPICE method, championed by Gerry Gillespie from Australia, to compost materials in all of their systems. For the bokashi method, piles are watered, turned, and allowed to heat up to kill weed seeds and pathogens. As the piles cool they are inoculated with a homemade lactobacillus culture and covered with tarps. This induces anaerobic conditions, which the lactobacillus favor. The pH drops and the compost begins to go through an anaerobic digestion (i.e. fermentation), similar to pickling. There are a number of benefits associated with this system: water retention within the piles, reduced carbon and nitrogen gas emissions, and reduced labor as the piles do not need to be turned. In the end, they end up with facultative anaerobes that can suppress soil pathogens. This compost is Paicines’ bulk product that we can broadcast as a soil amendment with a manure spreader.

The Johnson-Su bioreactor is a relatively small-scale composting option that was developed to decrease undesirable smells and pests, reduce labor, and produce a very microbially-diverse, fungal-dominant compost. At Paicines, they have been refining their process over three batches since 2018, testing out a traditional cylindrical version (too small!), and ultimately developing a bioreactor in an open-top shipping container.

The Paicines compost “recipe” for the bioreactor places an emphasis on high-carbon materials, stacking the feed with wood chips, straw, and dried leaf mulch. These materials act as bulking agents to prevent premature breakdown and to maintain pore spaces which allow for water and gas flow. Manure and grass clippings are also added, to provide nitrogen and other nutrients. Ultimately the breakdown has looked like: 15% wood chips, 40% chicken litter/bedding (mixed droppings and wood shavings), 20% horse bedding (mixed manure and straw), 10% lamb bedding (mixed manure + straw), 10% lawn clippings, 5% grape pomace.

The final product from a bioreactor is a much denser, clay-like substance than traditional compost. At Paicines, they are using the output to coat seeds to improve germination rates, soil water infiltration, soil carbon content, and overall plant health. Going forward, they intend to make some of the compost product into tea or extract to be disseminated by the irrigation lines. When injecting compost into the irrigation lines, it is extremely important to screen the material first, in order to prevent larger chunks from clogging the lines and emitters.

Wolfe’s Neck Center, in Freeport Maine, has been in touch with Paicines about their experiences with the Johnson-Su bioreactor as they begin plans for a small-scale compost system to be used in the education programs.