A Citizen Science Approach to Building Multiple Johnson-Su Bioreactors to Increase Soil Health, Vegetable Nutrient Density and Urban Food Sovereignty

Final report for FNC22-1356

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $29,619.00
Projected End Date: 01/15/2024
Grant Recipient: Sankara Farm LLC
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Ryan Tenney
Sankara Farm LLC
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Before this grant, each of the partner farms in the project carried out sustainable practices. These practices included: composting, no-till and low-till production, cover cropping, and more. Sankara Farm is the newest operation with 3 years of sustainable production, Antioch Urban Farm and KC Farm School at Gibbs Road have 5 years each.


Municipalities are strategizing to mitigate the direct negative impacts of climate change. The Kansas City Climate Action Playbook published in 2019 stated: 


"...City staff and contractors can transition away from the use of conventional fertilizers to the use of biochar or compost mixes that will improve the soil’s capacity to sequester carbon, feed plants and hold rainwater."

Citizen science initiatives increase knowledge transmission and community participation in the production of innovative solutions and local knowledge. People's protagonism presents a method of mobilizing ecological stewardship, social responsibility and organizing local agricultural producers and gardeners to increase local environmental awareness and agency. Our project utilizes art to enhance our capacity to shift focus from soil amendments to soil microbes. 

Local agricultural producers have the capacity to enact traditional sustainable practices and investigate new strategies to mitigate climate change. Healthy soil is vital to both production of nutritious food and carbon sequestration. Access to soil testing is a major barrier for many urban growers because of both cost and technical capacity. This project will increase the awareness of soil ecology, provide tool access to research soil health and facilitate the capacity to produce and test living compost containing beneficial microbiology. 

Project Objectives:

The Community Soil Science Cooperative initiated by farmers, backyard gardeners, and agricultural professionals will produce and monitor Johnson-Su compost, and research its impact on soil health, plant growth, and nutrient density.  Realizing that farms are sites of research and education, the Cooperative will utilize hands-on workshops to increase awareness of the universe of microorganisms in the soil and provide training on tools made available in a network of soil science tool libraries. Extensive AgroArt multimedia outreach materials will increase awareness of soil ecology and carbon sequestration will be made available on our websites.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Hilary Noonan - Technical Advisor (Educator)


Materials and methods:

Our Community Soil Science Cooperative is conducting several tests to determine the effectiveness of fungally active compost produced in a Johnson-Su bioreactor. We have several Bioreactors, each producing compost in different conditions (greenhouse, high tunnel, in the field.) We are monitoring the temperature and humidity of the bioreactors using Arduino micro-controllers and soil sensors. We chose micro-controllers because of the capacity to provide real time data of the conditions the bioreactors. We also have the capacity to add additional sensors for future functionality to our farms. We are measuring the fungal to bacterial ratio of the compost using micro-Biometers, Earthfort soil tests, and building a special archive of the compost using our NIR Spectrometer. We viewed all of these tools as appropriate technologies to improve the capacity for on farm research.

We are measuring the yields of crops grown in Jo-Su Compost to determine which temperature and humidity and fungal to bacterial ration produces the best yields. Each of our farm is running independent tests, using the same equipment with a control and a test bed. Data collection takes place using our Arduino, micro-Biometer app, and google spreadsheet. 

Research results and discussion:

At this stage in the project we have installed our Arduinos and sensors and are working our data storage procedures. We have conducted several microBiometer tests on our compost. We have not performed any Earthfort test and are waiting for the second half of the project to purchase and utilize the Nir Spectrometer.

Our test results from our partner farms tests: 

Antioch Urban Growers:

Research results and outcomes; our main test was the comparison between our test soil and our control soil. Interestingly, our control soil had better. Germination and faster growth. And yet our refractometer gave the produce a higher occurrence of nutritional density in our arugula test and a lower nutritional density in the radish. Our microbiometer test 


Showed very little difference in our control and test samples with a 31% fungi to 69% bacteria. We had a lot to learn in the using of all of the tools that we acquired through the grant. We were continually getting more solid test as we learned the science and methods of testing. One of my takeaways is the need for a specific person in charge of the testing that was not learning. We are learning a lot about the tools and the procedures.


Tracy Garden:

Jan 7 JoSu Built in Ted John’s back yard 3’ Circular Ted has helped with 5 builds 
April 22/23 JoSu Built KC Farm School, IBC Tote frame. Two exceptional Boy Scouts helped from start to finish. 20 others visited, some helped or watched.
April 23/23 JoSu Built at Treehouse Urban Farm. Two helped. Public location
April 28 JoSu Built at Kathy Adams, Three helped. Public location
May 3 JoSu Built at Ottinger/Scott yard has solar reflector & under ground compost as heater. 15 youth came to build from MoHivesKC. Semi public location
May 11 JoSu Built at Kathy Adams, Three helped, semi public
Aug 30 JoSu Built at Antioch for Locavore, Seven helped including three youth. Public location
• Sept 14 about 60 St. Teresa students in three groups visited the Urban Wilderness and our JoSu. Also about 30 made the same UW visit from UMKC
• Oct 19 Antioch Urban Growers we spoke to three groups in front of  the Locavore JoSu about microbes role in carbon sequestration and food health.
Nov 2 JoSu Built St Teresa’s Academy, 20 science students helped. Another class used the composter as class material.
Nov 15, JoSu Built UW, KU permaculture teacher learning to build for soil restoration project with 3000 acre Western Kansas site. President of Rockhill Ridge neighborhood assn. helped along with a student from UMKC Environmental Studies class.
Nov 16, JoSu Built with on David Galler backyard with David.
• Nov 17 We started a test at Kansas City Community Gardens to see if JoSu inoculant might help if added to their plant starting program
Nov 18, JoSu Built Block/Olson in backyard
Nov 28, JoSu Built Jen Sparks, Two permaculture teachers helped and learned about soil microbes and building JoSu.
Nov 29, JoSu Built Luke Welch, In his yard
Dec 7, JoSu Built Natasha Karsk in her yard
Dec 11, JoSu Built Ira/Leila In their garden KCMO
Dec 14, JoSu Built Alex in his back yard.
KC Farm School:

March 18, 2023

Hosted Leap into Spring at KC Farm School-

event brought 60 people

March 25, 2023

Hosted CSSC & The Land Institute, presented

concept and findings to 400 people

(2 hours)

April 22, 2023

Built 1 Johnson-Su bioreactor with Boy

Scouts and Marty Kraft (4 hours) at Compost

Fest, 500 people

Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Consultations
6 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
5 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

7 Farmers participated
9 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:
We are working on a mobile App for monitoring Jo-Su bioreactor temperature and humidity, provide access to the tool library and information about the cooperative.
Collectively, we hosted 7 events related to our project. KC Farm School hosted 3 on-farm events. Leap into Spring was attended by 60 people, our Kernza pancake breakfast was well attended with 400 people in attendance. The third event at KC Farm School demonstrated the construction of a Jo-Su Bioreactor at Compost Fest was attended by 500 people.
Sankara Farm hosted a soil science field day with Lincoln University Extension and the Land Institute, and hosted 30 people.

Learning Outcomes

8 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

We have been able to gain valuable knowledge about our capacity and our strengths. We learned that coordinating between three farms is a challenge for a part time coordinator position, and that building a tool library is a technical challenge that requires a lot of back end work. We have been consistent with meetings and keeping on schedule with our programming calendar and workshop schedule. We underestimated the time it takes to gain useful knowledge of the tools we are using to measure our results. 

Project Outcomes

8 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

We were able to present the Community Soil Science Cooperative at the 10th annual Black Urban Growers conference in Atlanta, GA in October. We presented a workshop on using Micro-Biometers for fungal to bacterial soil analysis, demonstrated how to use remote soil sensing using our arduinos and raised awareness about increasing soil health with microbiology. In Atlanta we were invited by Truly Living Well Farm to test the compost being produced there.

Each Johnson-Su build is a great educational event. The event is hands on and the questions come naturally, and with curiosity about the whole process. Those at each site are encouraged to share the resulting inoculant with neighbors to increase a sense of neighborhood community laden with greater environmental understanding. The potential for carbon sequestration and food health are emphasized at each event. When the soil is healthy both health and climate balance are served. Photos of each event were shared on social media.
The CSSC workshop at the National Black Urban Growers Conference
Members of the Community Soil Science Cooperative performing MicroBiometer tests in Atlanta, GA

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.