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Expanding Regenerative Agriculture Through Open Source Technologies

Above Photo: Dorn Cox, farmer and research director at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment.

Dorn Cox is a family farmer who has long been in the vanguard of improving regenerative agriculture with open source technologies. He sees participatory science and knowledge commons as powerful tools for improving agriculture in countless ways:  crop yields, soil health, water usage, ecosystem resilience. All are especially needed in the face of climate change.

I wanted to learn more, so in my latest episode of Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #36), I spoke with Cox about these topics, which are extensively examined in his new book The Great Regeneration:  Ecological Agriculture, Open-Source Technology, and a Radical Vision of Hope.  The book explores how open source hardware, software, data analytics, and knowledge-sharing commons are opening up new vistas of possibility for local, regenerative farming.

With a deep background in earth system sciences and a PhD in natural resources, Cox is a man of the soil – and the computer.  He farms with his family on 250 acres in Lee, New Hampshire, and also serves as research director for the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment in Freeport, Maine. But Cox is also deeply immersed in open source communities dedicated to developing technologies to strengthen small farms and local agriculture.

He is a founder of the farmOS software platform, a web-based app for farm management, planning and record-keeping.  He also helped organize Farm Hack, an open source hardware project that designs and builds agricultural equipment. More recently, Cox has helped develop the Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management – called OpenTEAM – which is a farmer-driven collaborative community dedicated to improving soil health and addressing climate change.

I was curious how digital technology – often used by Big Agriculture as an industrial tool to grow monocrops at the expense of soil health and ecosystems – might actually be used to improve soil and eco-diversity while making farming more decentralized and participatory.

Cox points out that the open source ethic is perfectly suited for this task. Its knowledge and designs cannot be privatized, but must be shared with a large and diversified community of inventors/users, i.e., commoners.  Farming is such a complex affair that it only makes sense for it to revolve around knowledge commons about agricultural practices.

He told me:  “Any farm really is a shared human endeavor because of all of the different elements in it,” he said. “You have to know how to manage an irrigation system, which means you’re dealing with hydraulics and electronics and fluid dynamics and metallurgy, plus the natural systems that you’re trying to affect. It’s just an incredible amount of technical knowledge, and it’s unreasonable to think that any one individual or enterprise could hold all of that it.”

The principles of open source collaboration, as pioneered in software, offer an elegant solution.  The technologies enable us to build on the knowledge of our predecessors, as farmers have done for generations, but now in more efficient ways.

“There is a saying that every farmer has 40 seasons to learn, experience, and get better,” said Cox. “But if you have a thousand farmers, you’ve got 40,000 years that you can start to build on.  And if you think about that generationally or globally, the pace at which we can learn and apply that knowledge can really accelerate. That’s what gives me hope.”

Cox notes that open source technologies and networks developed over the past few decades have created new types of collaborative tools that can accelerate learning at a much faster speed, and in very different ways.

One innovation along these lines is the “Ag Data Wallet,” a free and open source alternative to Facebook that lets farmers transfer their agricultural data easily to multiple platforms without compromising farmers’ control of their data. This helps facilitate “peer-to-peer benchmarking, soil and greenhouse gas modeling, community discussion, and biogeochemical models,” among other things.

The “Digital Coffee Shop” is intended as a way for farmers worldwide to share information about their agronomy and land stewardship, much as farmers associated with the System of Rice Intensification do. At a bioregional scale, the Million Acre Challenge in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, is a knowledge exchange focused on soil health and farming practices.

An abiding challenge in all cases is to ensure that the knowledge and design of these tools remain in the commons. The agricultural knowledge commons must protect themselves against large corporations wielding patents, legal contracts, and proprietary designs attempting to privatize the knowledge.

One vehicle for developing open source farming equipment is the group Farm Hack, a network of tech engineers, software coders, activists, and farmers that pioneered low-cost, cutting-edge, do-it together technologies and scientific tools.

For example, farmers today can use open source drones with cameras that can map fields, take aerial infrared photos of photosynthetic on the ground, and use sensors to monitor the weather.  Despite the complexity and expense of prototyping sophisticated technologies, open source design and knowledge commons can help overcome problems at many stages of tech prototyping and development, and in blending many fields of research.

Cox cited the “roller crimper,” developed years ago by the Rodale Institute,the pioneering nonprofit dedicated to organic farming. This simple tool had its origins with Indigenous peoples, who crimped field crops into mulch by rolling it at a very specific stage of growth. Rodale’s publication of the tool design helped spark many global variations of the roller crimper. But development of this tool “required not just innovation in manufacturing,” said Cox, “but knowledge about the biology of the crop and how it was functioning in the soil.” By integrating many types of knowledge, the crimper has helped farmers move to a holistic approach to managing soils, crops, and weed suppression, among other things.

I asked Cox how he would situate his vision of regenerative, localized agriculture through technology with the vision offered by Wendell Berry, the farmer-essayist, philosopher, and poet.  Cox doesn’t hesitate for a moment to celebrate family-oriented, localized agriculture, notwithstanding Berry’s aversion to new-fangled technologies: “There is beauty and something important in the family farm that needs to be valued,” he said, especially in its ethic of community and respect for the land, said Cox.

But Cox points out that new technologies have their own capacities to build new sorts of connections among people.  For one, they can “build bridges between rural and urban communities that are supporting the production. Agriculture is really about how we all engage in managing our environment together, and creating a role for people in the cities for engaging in agriculture in some way.”  As many traditional agricultural folkways and storytelling wane, said Cox, the new tools and technologies are serving as platforms for new types of social collaboration and bonding.

As for the risks that Big Ag will step in and co-opt or privatize open source ag technologies, Cox notes that the issue is complicated because even many large agricultural firms accept the realities of knowledge and design commons, and realize that they must embrace more sustainable practices. That said, Cox agrees: “We certainly worry about greenwashing and free-riding, but the tools and technologies also give us the ability to observe how they are used. They allow for ‘traceability’ and accountability in ways that haven’t been possible in the past.”

You can listen to my full interview with Dorn Cox here. A transcript is available here.

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