May 21, 2024

Practical Farmers to honor WIU’s Gruver

Joel Gruver

AMES, Iowa — Joel Gruver, a professor of soil science and sustainable agriculture at Western Illinois University in Macomb, will receive the 2024 Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award from Practical Farmers of Iowa.

The award is given each year by PFI to an individual or couple that has shown exemplary commitment to sustainable agriculture, generously shared their knowledge with others and been influential in efforts to foster vibrant communities, diverse farms and healthy food.

The award will be presented Jan. 19 during PFI’s annual conference at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.

Since joining the WIU faculty in 2007, Gruver has taught several undergraduate courses each semester, introducing thousands of students to vital concepts related to soil health and conservation.

He has also managed the university’s Allison Organic Research & Demonstration Farm, where he has explored a range of practical questions related to organic farming, weed control, soil health, cover crops, corn and soybean hybrids and varieties, and more.

During this time, he has expanded the farm’s use of cover crops, explored many questions related to integrating cover crops into production systems and raised the visibility of the farm and its research.

“Joel is committed to education and innovation,” said Mark Quee, PFI board member from West Branch, Iowa, who nominated Gruver for the award. “When a row crop farmer experimenting with cover crops asks, ‘Have we tried this?’ the answer is that Joel is currently doing so or is willing to start.”

Gruver also shares his knowledge extensively with farmers. Each year, he makes a point of speaking at several farmer meetings around the country — typically 20 or more — to share what he has learned from his many on-farm research trials and to gain inspiration for new trials based on questions he hears from farmers.

“I have spoken at somewhere between 400 and 500 farmer meetings since the mid-1990s. It has been part of my identity, that I do lots of outreach,” Gruver said in a PFI release.

Early Interest

Gruver was born in Baltimore, but spent considerable time exploring the 15-acre farm his parents purchased north of the city when he was 6 years old.

The farm — formally called Honeycomb Farm, but which he later affectionately referred to as Gruver Land — was foundational to his identity.

“My parents introduced us to the plants and animals as our neighbors, just like the surrounding farms. That really was very formative for who I am today,” Gruver said.

The family land also gave Gruver a window into farming as a vocation. As a teenager, he worked on a neighbor’s cow-calf farm, where he learned about rotational grazing and developed an interest in grazing systems.

He later managed a CSA vegetable farm and sheep flock at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, which he credits with showing him a pathway to an agriculture-focused career.

This led him to pursue a master’s degree in agronomy at University of Maryland, where he studied under internationally known soil scientist Ray Weil.

He read extensively about sustainable agriculture and found himself at the nexus of several sustainable agriculture organizations, including the Northeast Organic Farming Association and the Pennsylvania-based group Pasa Sustainable Agriculture.

“I started becoming aware of the movements and organizations of farmers that were interested in organics and tackling all the different elements of sustainability,” Gruver noted.

PFI Involvement

After earning his master’s degree, Gruver moved to Raleigh to manage the University of North Carolina’s Center for Environmental Farming, staying on to earn his doctorate in soil science. Through his ongoing affiliation with Pasa, he learned of PFI.

In 2007, Gruver became a member of Practical Farmers. Since then, he has spoken at various PFI events, and he regularly engages with farmers on PFI’s discussion groups.

“I’ve always viewed PFI as a really good model of effective outreach and integration of different groups and different perspectives. It’s just a great example of bridge-building and helping farmers do on-farm science, which is the foundation of PFI,” Gruver said.