Josh Gruver lives at the intersection of boundless adventure and practical pursuits.
“Listen, it hurts a little, having grown up in such a physical, close-to-the-earth environment. We built our house in the mountains, cut wood for heat, and grew our own food. That way of life is part of me, but it is no more, and I feel it,” said Gruver, who teaches courses in natural resources and environmental management as an associate professor in the College of Sciences and Humanities.
His life and work reflect that inner tension between gritty, against-the-grain work and sensible living. His college and graduate work — which concluded at Penn State University, where he earned his Ph.D. — challenged him, but not always in ways he anticipated. Windowless biochemistry labs drove him to the Peace Corp for two years. In a remote village of Papua New Guinea, he taught math and science and discovered a way to blend his passionate and practical natures.
“Papua New Guinea changed everything,” Gruver said.
In stacks of notebooks and in lengthy letters to his future wife, he wrote about “sociocultural, economic and biophysical dimensions that inform the human-natural resources dynamic. There, I found my next path, to pursue academia as a way to dig into real-world projects yet make a living and grow a family.”
Research that inspires action
At Ball State, Gruver adapts the types of local, sustainable management practices he observed in the Pacific into meaningful work in east central Indiana. His most recent endeavor: a three-year, grant-funded project to assess the region’s food-scape, develop a strategy to increase economic development among producers, and enhance residents’ awareness of and access to local, affordable food.
“This is critical work, as we strive to support area farmers while combating food insecurity and increasing the overall health of our community,” he said. In Delaware County, one in four people is food insecure. Between 2007–12, the county lost 49 small-scale farms, which Gruver said are integral to a resilient, productive local food system.
Despite such disadvantages, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture identified Muncie as an “emerging region” capable of supporting a food hub, defined as a centrally located facility with a business management structure that brings together storage, processing, and distribution of regionally produced food products.
“East central Indiana gets about 40 inches of precipitation every year, we have good soils, plenty of sun, and a long tradition of farming,” said Gruver, who also received grants to assess soil quality of area farms and promote land conservation. “So why not take advantage of this rich environment rather than sourcing from places like California’s Central Valley, where they struggle with drought, among other things?”
With a team of volunteers, students, and colleagues, Gruver has developed Muncie Food Hub Partnership, a multi-faceted operation that combines a central facility for producers to store and sell crops with mobile food trucks to deliver fresh, local produce. The approach, which ensures more stability for producers and more reliable access for consumers, is ambitious. But, Gruver said, the community is “hungry for better.”
A vital legacy
“People want to feed their families with quality, affordable produce and goods, and producers are eager to better connect with the community. We just need to work on education and access to shift the culture from how it’s been done to how it could be,” said Gruver, who with the help of many collaborators across campus and in the community (including students, faculty, staff, farmers, and community organizations), launched a mobile produce market this summer.
“It will happen, and it will happen because our community is coming together to support this vital legacy of farming in Indiana.”
Even though he’s digging in and planting change, Gruver occasionally feels the tug to flee the everyday, but life, similar to our food culture, is in constant tension for balance.
“I’ll probably always have a small part of me that wants to break away and go live in a remote village on 50 cents a day,” he added. “But I have found purpose in Muncie.”
Meaningful change won’t happen overnight, he added, but the father of two remains hopeful and patient that progress will come for his adopted home. And who knows, maybe he’ll get those hands dirty again after all.
To learn more, go online at Muncie Food Hub Partnership. Also, at the 2018 Local Food Summit in Muncie, Josh Gruver will speak and help lead the “Food Hub Feedback” workshop session. The summit is October 24 at the Ball State Alumni Center.