A Leader in Research and Technology: Center for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of British Columbia

OpenTEAM sees agriculture as a public science. By creating a pre-competitive space where we can more rapidly and easily pool knowledge, resources and capabilities, we can develop a shared understanding of food systems, agroecosystems, climate science, and relationships between soil health and human health in order to collectively solve the systemic challenges of climate change and farmer resiliency.

OpenTEAM’s goals are not simply to create better research and decision tools, but to demonstrate a collaborative approach to data portability & soil health research that will catalyze transformation in agriculture and global systems science. By making research findings as public as possible, we can support collaborative and peer-to-peer learning. 

“It is hard for advancements to happen in silos. By making research public, people can work off of it and collaborate together through shared research,” says Ollie Summers, who worked as the Data Manager at UBC Farm earlier this year.

UBC Farm Logo

The UBC Farm is the Center for Sustainable Food Systems’ (CSFS) main research, teaching and learning space at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Researchers apply to CSFS every year, providing information on how much land they need to carry out their research, the support they need from farmers, what they are planning to grow, etc… The Field Manager then sees if the researchers’ needs align with that of the “commercial” side of the farm, as the food production then funds other aspects of the Center and the farm.

UBC Farm is working to safely share data researchers collect to not only make processes easier when sharing research through journals, but to make their research more transparent. Through shared research, other researchers and citizen scientists can more easily check that work and the validity of it, thus improving the quality of research that goes out.

“Human improvement is always based on sharing knowledge,” says Summers. In addition to working on making research data more public, Summers along with others at UBC Farm are working to make data collected on the farm more understandable by taking it in its raw form and making it more visually appealing.

Through LiteFarm, a farm management tool, UBC Farm is looking to improve their research data collection methods and analysis processes while supporting others globally who are either current or aspiring sustainable farmers.

“We feel a drive and necessity to be a farm that is focusing on research and development because we have the capacity and want the world to shift in a way that is positive for farmers and for the environment by being as involved and collaborative as possible,” says Summers.

Co-designed by farmers, researchers, designers, software professionals, donors, open-source enthusiasts and others, LiteFarm is a free and open source farm management tool with over 1600 users from around the world. The application emphasizes ease, creating a non-intimidating tool which is accessible and portable for farmers.

“We are using this tool to pull research data from farmers. In its creation, we have switched this paradigm where it is made for farmers rather than researchers, making it easier for producers to input their farm management data while still supporting researchers in their larger data needs,” says Kevin Cussen, Product Lead for LiteFarm at UBC.

To maintain accessibility, LiteFarm underscores the importance of its open-source development. The users they are trying to reach, particularly from marginalized communities, are often unable to pay for software. Thus, making their application open source, open access, and free to use remains important to the development of LiteFarm.

“95% of the internet is built on open source structure, it accelerates innovation,” says Cussen.

At the end of last year, LiteFarm shared a major update to their tool, developing increased breadth and depth of their crops module, introducing crop management plans, creating a new task feature, and allowing farmers to upload certain documents to the application. The app is now being used by over 1,500 farmers in more than 75 countries. As a part of this update, they refreshed the litefarm.org website to share some of the success stories of their users. They are also actively adding video training guides in English, Spanish, and Portuguese on getting started with the app.

Additionally, the app now has the ability to capture all the inputs and outputs necessary to certify a farm’s crops as organic. Although this capability is currently available in British Columbia and some parts of South America, users seeking certifications outside those areas are able to generate a generic version of the same information to assist in their own certification requirements. As for the future of LiteFarm’s continued development, it looks towards integrating livestock and livestock management into its application.

By being a part of the OpenTEAM community, UBC Farm and LiteFarm see opportunities to collaborate with others in the community and integrate with other tools.

“Supporting open source software and the idea of a consortium of tools that work together is an admirable goal. We are very excited about OpenTEAM and are looking out for opportunities to collaborate that helps with our user base and helps with others’ user bases,” says Cussen.

Through UBC Farm’s and LiteFarm’s workstreams and those of OpenTEAM, project collaborators and tool developers are able to connect with farmers and understand what is useful for them, ensuring human-centered design processes that provide tools with both high utility and ease of use for farmers of all farm sizes, regions, and production systems.

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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.”

Advancing Regenerative Agriculture on One Million Acres of Farmland with OpenTEAM

In March of 2019, General Mills Inc. committed to “advancing regenerative agriculture on one million acres of farmland by 2030.” Like other industries, agriculture contributes to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption. While General Mills doesn’t own farmland themselves, agriculture does account for 60% of their supply chain emissions across everything from farm to fork to landfill. As farmers are the foundation to their supply chain, this opens an opportunity to lead the way in combating climate change by supporting farmers in implementing regenerative agriculture principles in their own operations.

Over two years since making their commitment, General Mills has led several different pilot strategies to grow regenerative agriculture adoption across farms in the American midwest and Canada. After joining OpenTEAM in 2020, General Mills has been able to work with a diverse group of organizations across the food, agriculture, and technology sectors to bring to life important aspects of their strategies and use OpenTEAM’s tools and network to reach their goals.

“We have lots of different pilot strategies out there in these different sourcing regions, just trying to see what works, what’s really helpful and meaningful for farmers as they’re trying to transition to these regenerative systems,” says Steve Rosenzweig, a soil scientist at General Mills that combines his knowledge of crop, soil, and social sciences to help meet the company’s sustainability commitments.

General Mills identifies six core principles of regenerative agriculture as understanding the context of each farm and ranch, minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing plant diversity, keeping the soil covered, maintaining living roots year-round, and integrating livestock. These principles ultimately build soil carbon for healthier crops and a cleaner atmosphere.

Farmers that supply key ingredients for General Mills products including oats, wheat, corn, dairy and sugar beets are applying such strategies to their own operations. Over 70 farmers in North Dakota, Canada, and Kansas are receiving coaching, educational opportunities, soil sampling, and bird and insect biodiversity monitoring across their farms to contextualize regenerative agriculture for their operations.

A key challenge to measuring the impact these initiatives have on the farm and the environment is actually securing data from farmers themselves. “It’s really difficult, just from a technical standpoint, to get what’s in their head about what they did on their farm into a format that our research partners can use to make sense of the environmental data they’ve collected,” says Rosenzweig. As General Mills works to address this, they are using tools within the OpenTEAM tech ecosystem such as farmOS and SurveyStack to keep track of the management changes farmers are implementing, helping them to understand what practices are driving the outcomes they’ve observed.

Recently, General Mills engaged with the OpenTEAM community further by joining a collaborative of organizations led by Our Sci to co-design and develop a “Digital Coffeeshop” for farmers. This will help farmers to better leverage their data to create benchmarks and build networks with other farmers. As this project continues in the development phase, “We’re starting to realize some of the visions of OpenTEAM, that this data has multiple uses and it becomes easier to help the farmers get value from their data,” says Rosenzweig.

From open community participatory research to creating a community of regenerative farmers across the General Mills supply chain, the OpenTEAM ecosystem has built a foundation that supports farmers in their ambition to apply these changes on their own farms and even be compensated for applying regenerative farming principles. In October, General Mills made the first payments to farmers as a result of a collaboration with the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium. After months of soil sampling, managing data, and cleaning that data for modeling and verification, farmers are getting paid for the environmental benefits they are cultivating.

“This is one of the first pilots for this market in the whole country. There was a lot we had to figure out, from soil sampling to the payment,” says Rosenzweig, “So, I set their expectations really low…I think they were all pleasantly surprised that we actually managed to get all the way to the payment process, because it has been a long journey for them as well.”

As General Mills continues to strategize ways for farmers to adopt regenerative farming principles, they recognize the need to connect people, systems, and tools to better implement soil health and regenerative agriculture practices across farms of all scales, geographies, and production types. Thanks to OpenTEAM, they maintain a hopeful outlook for the future of agriculture.

“It’s just a network of people and tools that can really help us engage communities of farmers in research as they’re moving down this regenerative path,” says Rosenzweig.

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.