Joshua Gruver wears many hats, all of which touch on issues very dear to me. As an academic, he is a professor in the Department of Environment, Geology, and Natural Resources at Ball State University in Muncie, where he seeks to combine an understanding of the ecology with a sociological understanding of how people make the choices that shape our shared environment. But Gruver is no ivory-tower academic, he puts his work to practice — serving as the founder of the Muncie Food Hub Partnership, whose mission is to nourish and strengthen the Muncie community through the robust exchange of fresh and affordable local food; the founder of the Local Food Summit; sits on the Delaware County Food Council; and on the board of the Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District. In a state largely defined by agriculture, Gruver is seeking to make our food healthier, sustainable, and accessible for all. As COVID-19 continues to lay bear how brittle our food systems are, it was the perfect time to talk with Gruver. 

BEN VALENTINE: You have a Ph.D. in Forest Resources & Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Pennsylvania State University. Those have traditionally been separate, why is it important to add the human side of things into the study of natural resources?

JOSHUA GRUVER: It’s important to know and understand the biophysical elements of natural resources and the management of those resources (e.g., growth rates of swamp white oaks, how smallmouth bass metabolize nutrients, etc...), but what we’ve come to learn fairly recently is that natural resources management is very much about understanding people as well. How do people make decisions about the resources they use? What motivates particular behaviors that they engage in? An applied example is related to the research I did for my PhD. The question that I asked was; how do private forest landowners make decisions regarding ownership succession of their woods? The thing that surprises people is that, in general, east of the Mississippi river there is a lot more land that is privately owned — and by extension a lot more forest land that is privately owned — whether that’s five acres of forest land in the backyard, or hundreds of acres of forest land that is used for timber and hunting. Eighty-five percent of Indiana’s forests are privately owned, and each year the number of owners increases. As this happens, there is a much higher chance that those pieces will undergo some sort of dramatic land-use change — either trees removed to make way for a new house, or a development, or a parking lot. Or, maybe no trees are removed, but the forests are managed in different ways. Smaller tracts of land do not offer the same benefits to the same kinds of animals that a larger tract will. We learned that in some places in the US forest loss was happening at astounding rates. In Pennsylvania, in the mid-to late-90s, we were losing, on average, 385 acres of forest and agricultural land per day!     

Long story short — we wanted to learn about how people who own forestland make the decision to sell, conserve or pass it along to their heirs. What goes into that decision process? Past research told us it all boiled down to economics — that if the family needed money, they would sell. If they didn’t want to pay taxes on the land, they would subdivide and sell. If we can break it down to a series of smaller decisions and thoughts, we can perhaps begin to better understand how we can better inform or educate forest owners to make a decision that benefits them, but also benefits the forest system and others who rely on the ecosystem benefits that that forest may provide. One of the things we learned about forest owners is that there was a tendency to divide land equally among their heirs or leave it to all of the heirs and let them decide how to divide it. In the first arrangement — dividing land equally — again, parcelized forestscapes have a much higher probability of being fragmented, converted to other uses, and developed. In the second arrangement — leaving the land collectively to multiple heirs - often led to infighting and drawn-out legal battles. 

VALENTINE: So you studied forests and the people that care for them, and then you moved to Muncie, Indiana in 2010, which is fair to say not especially forested. What did you think about your new environment? 

GRUVER: To be honest, it took me a while to get used to East Central Indiana (ECI). Not only is the flatness astounding, but the lack of public land here is also astounding. In Pennsylvania, I was surrounded by thousands of acres of state forest land. You could find a new trail to hike and birdwatch every day of the year. Here in ECI — there’s Mounds and Summit Lake, and … and ...? I think that was the biggest adjustment for my family and I — there just aren’t a lot of places for outdoor recreation here, at least the kind of outdoor recreation I was used to. But I have come to really appreciate East Central Indiana’s agrarian landscape — you can’t beat a late August sunset over cornfields! Astoundingly beautiful, and you can see it all and it goes on forever. Living in the Appalachians for most of my life, mountains always hid sunrises and sunsets.  

VALENTINE: Accordingly, your research quickly shifted. You received an Aspire Junior Faculty grant with Brian Lepore to study soil quality on small scale farms and the farmers’ relationship with their soil. What did you find, and how did that lead to your current work? 

GRUVER: We learned a great deal about the things that small scale farmers of diversified crops do to their soil to make it better and that it’s a labor of love. For my part, I learned about their visions of the future of the farm — how many of the farmers wanted to grow their businesses, that most of them have a primary job to fund their farming urges, but want to transition to full time farming because they are passionate about it. Many started to grow their own food as a response to knowing where their food was coming from and know that it was healthy for their family. Most don’t make a lot of money from farming, but continue to do it anyway because it’s in their blood. 

There are many barriers that stand in the way of diversified crop farmers building thriving agriculture businesses. The cost of crop insurance is extremely high and most cannot afford it. So if weather or a pest knocks out your tomato crop — it’s a loss. There are no subsidy programs that cover diversified crops — unlike corn and bean farming, where farmers get federal assistance every year. Until recently, Purdue tended to focus educational programming, technical assistance, etc… for large commodity crop growers — seed development, pesticide and fertilizer advancements, increased technology being integrated into farm machinery, etc… If a produce farmer wanted to learn how best to do what it is they do, they had to turn to other states for assistance. This is changing quite dramatically however. There are more and more Purdue Extension specialists and educators who focus efforts on diversified crop growers. There is a lot more support out there than there was a decade ago. One of the things we learned from this initial research was that diversified crop growers did not have enough outlets to sell their goods. Aside from farmers markets near them or a roadside stand or, for the entrepreneurs, the restaurant who might buy their green tomatoes or sweet corn, there was nothing. We heard again and again how these growers would return from the farmers market and feed excess produce that wouldn’t last the week to their chickens or hogs. Some would donate produce to soup kitchens or food pantries. This is what eventually led us to think about developing some sort of food hub or co-op. A place that would purchase produce from farmers, aggregate products from multiple farmers and find a place to sell those products, whether it was to restaurants, schools, or direct to consumer. The idea of a food hub is that it takes the burden off of the farmer for finding buyers. It opens up new market opportunities. 

VALENTINE: Clearly Indiana knows how to farm at an industrial scale. But what are the biggest obstacles to growing small?

GRUVER: Where do I start? Lack of support (financial — i.e., no subsidization); lack of educational resources (particularly in Indiana — though, like I said before, this is changing); lack of markets — and not just farmers markets, but markets in general — i.e., places that will buy locally/regionally grown food; lack of access to affordable crop insurance —some describing finding themselves in a sort of insurance donut hole, where they felt they were not large enough to justify the cost of insurance, but were too large to absorb the cost of a crop failure; lack of educated consumers in terms of healthy eating; regulatory issues - many small farmers feel overburdened by excessive or unfitting regulations from the federal and state level, that policies are enacted with large-scale operations in mind, so many regulations seem inappropriate to their scale, making the compliance process onerous - both time and cost prohibitive. Time — many small farmers struggle with being able to expand their operations or having the time to implement new practices. While some of the farmers aspired to leave their off-farm job in order to farm full-time, many view what they do as a lifestyle choice that must be supported by an off-farm income. Yet, time was limited even for the full-time farmer. Those who farm full-time often describe struggling with being able to get everything done when it needs to be. Labor — it’s hard to find consistent, hard-working help. And many can’t afford to pay for good help. Depleted soil — from years of conventional crop farming; Pesticide/herbicide (chemical) drift issues — many small farmers are an island in the midst of a sea of industrial ag and when pesticides or herbicides are misapplied and drift onto their crops, it can ruin everything. 

VALENTINE: Let’s talk about food access and food justice. How are you working to make organic, fresh, and local food as affordable and accessible as possible, and why is that so important?

GRUVER: The Muncie Food Hub Partnership (MFHP) currently has two main programs: 1) Mobile Farmers Market — where we source local products and sell these products as cheap as possible in low food access areas. We are able to take advantage of several food subsidy programs like Women Infant and Children’s vouchers, Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program benefits, IU Health Bucks, and SNAP (though we are approved by the state to accept SNAP — Ball State University does not allow us to accept credit cards or EBT cards in remote locations i.e., off-campus. We are working on changing this as it really hampers our ability to help customers with costs). The farmers we source from can, in some cases, offer us wholesale pricing as well. The operations that can do this tend to be a bit larger than the really small operations. Our pricing tends to be fairly even with what stores like PayLess and Walmart charge. 2) IU Health’s COVID-19 relief program — where grant funding from the IU Health Foundation covers the cost of locally sourced products and we deliver those products to pantries, daycares, and other emergency food organizations. This has been a real joy to be a part of. We have 10 sites in three counties that we deliver to weekly. And you can’t beat handing over these beautiful products to people for free — it’s a really cool feeling. I have undergraduate and graduate students who help me run both programs and it’s really fun to see them grow and learn about food justice issues and take real pride in being part of the solution. I feel this work is so important because it is so needed. The amount of people who line up each week at food distributions sites around Muncie is remarkable and clearly shows that our current food system doesn’t work for everyone. And if you look at the health statistics in ECI — the rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are higher than the state and national averages…. demonstrating that the food people typically have access to, and can afford, isn’t good for us.  

VALENTINE: While modern agriculture claims that, in order to feed the planet, many industrial farming practices — full of pesticides, fertilizers, and GMOs — are necessary. Modern agriculture is one of the leading causes of habitat loss on the planet, and a large CO2 and methane gas emitter. Permaculture stands as a profound counter to this, yet has not proven it can work at a scale that industrial farming currently does. I would love to see Indiana lead a shift towards a kind of farming that can feed millions, while also nourishing biodiversity and local economies. Is that possible? 

GRUVER: It is totally possible. Look at the work that Brandywine Creek Farms is doing in Indy — Jonathan and Amanda Lawler are growing produce (a lot of it organically) at a large scale. And most of it is going to emergency food organizations and people living in low food access areas. And they are just one example of many in Indiana and the Midwest. Joel Salatin’s work in Virginia is another inspiring example of regenerative agriculture — rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. These operations are inspiring others to do the same kind of work. The whole cooking and entertainer chef movement elevates the role of the farmer in our lives too — making it a job that young people in particular might aspire to. I don’t want to vilify all large scale commodity growers though — there are many out there who work very hard to farm more sustainably — thinking about soil conservation and increasing organic matter, etc. Many of them are turning to regenerative practices like no-till, cover cropping, and other conservation practices (e.g., grass waterways). The work of Jason Mauck in ECI is a good example. Part of the work we do at the DelCo Soil and Water Conservation District is to help subsidize the cost of implementing these conservation practices. We do some of this by partnering with organizations like the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), IN Department of Natural Resources, and local Foundations (e.g., Ball Brothers) and directing federal funds to farmers who are interested in utilizing soil conservation practices among other things.   

VALENTINE: With farmers throwing away food while food banks are overwhelmed with demand, COVID-19 has revealed just how brittle our current food system is. How can we make a more resilient food system?

GRUVER: The million-dollar question! I think a lot of it starts with educating consumers about healthy eating habits, eating in season, where our food comes from, etc. As well, helping small scale and/or farmers of diversified crops (produce and other non-commodity items) overcome a lot of the barriers I mentioned above (i.e., affordable insurance, more markets for their goods, fair and equitable wages for employees, etc). Also, helping to develop and build the infrastructure necessary to encourage the robust exchange of local and regional affordable fresh foods —  many of our communities do not have this. The MFHP and other food hubs are a step in the right direction. These hubs are ultimately “growing” more farmers. As new markets open up they provided incentive for new people to enter the food production business. All of these things together will go a long way to creating multiple and overlapping levels of regional and local systems building on themselves, creating flexible, fair and equitable, healthier (for our bodies and the Earth) levels of food exchange. 

There is so much to say to answer this final question. The food system touches every component of the world we live in. And making a more resilient one will require change on every level. It’s challenging to have a pat answer to this question, but the things mentioned above are certainly steps in the right direction.