Sustainability and Food Production in the Hoosier Heartland: Learning through Local Engagement

By Cailín E. Murray with contributions from her students Whitney Lingle and Britny Burton

Once a booming agricultural and factory town, Muncie, Indiana, is today a post-industrial rustbelt city grappling with questions about its economic and environmental futures. As heavy industries left town, Muncie’s economy has flagged, leaving some 24% of its residents at or below the poverty line.  To make matters worse, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined in 2007 that one-third of the city’s former industrial sites were brownfields that posed risks to human health and safety.[i]

In spite of these challenges, Muncie residents are transforming and revitalizing their city. In particular, they have shown renewed and growing interest in sustainably produced foods as a boon to overall health, safety and environmental restoration. Innovative partnerships have enabled Ball State University (BSU) professors and students to directly contribute to these community efforts. Inspired by Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd’s pioneering community study, Middletown, BSU professors and students are expanding this tradition of conducting engaged, local research to benefit the region. The result has been the transformation of former brownfields into public wetlands.[ii]  Also through direct civic engagement, student volunteers have helped remove 70,000 pounds of trash from the White River watershed over the last six years. As significant as these restoration efforts are for the community, local residents are also finding ways to combine sustainable economic development with environmental restoration.

As an environmental ethnohistorian and a resident of Muncie, I became interested in these grassroots efforts. I signed up for a plot in a local community garden, an experience that enabled me to better understand how organic and sustainable efforts to produce local food are also contributing to large-scale efforts to clean up and breathe new life into east-central Indiana. Gardening on everything from parking strips to abandoned and foreclosed properties is one step residents are taking towards restoring the landscape and increasing green space in the city. Such efforts improve the quality of life and encourage people to invest more in Muncie, overall.

In spring 2012, I launched a pilot study with student researchers from the Department of Anthropology in order to explore different dimensions of local food production in Muncie and Delaware County. Students compared organic and conventional farming, explored urban community gardening and studied the history of agriculture in east central Indiana. Student teams conducted archival research, participant observation and interviews, identifying three areas for community-based research. Several new and exciting student-led projects have emerged from this pilot project, which my students and I describe below.

Ball Brothers Glass Factory - Muncie, IN

Ball Brothers Glass Factory – Muncie, IN

HOOSIER ROOTS

Dr. Cailín E. Murray on the History of Home Production in Muncie         

Muncie’s answers to its own questions about 21st century sustainability and environmental restoration can be located in family traditions and local histories. The Hoosier heartland is rooted in much older traditions of self-sufficiency and local sustainability. When new settlers arrived to the region in the early 1840s, they brought with them an ethic of self-sufficiency. Families took pride in the home production of seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh meats, dairy products and eggs through family-centered activities on urban homesteads. BSU Geography graduate student, Bryan Preston, in his recent MA thesis, demonstrated that gardening is an old activity in this region and is once again on the rise in Muncie.[iii]

My own work with my colleague Mark Groover—an historical archaeologist who specializes in the study of homesteads and the American transition to consumerism—involves collaborating with members of the Delaware County Historical Society and homeowners to uncover clues about past household production in Muncie. Using both ethnohistoric and archaeological methods, we plan to reconstruct this local culture of self-sufficiency by demonstrating how Victorian-era residents in Muncie met the food needs of their families and communities. For example, early settlers Thomas and Matilda Neely worked tirelessly to grow and process a wide variety of foods on their large house lot for over 40 years. People like the Neely family also relied on the production efforts of neighbors. We’ve discovered that one neighbor in the area kept bees on his property and sold the honey locally. These are small glimpses into a complex early food web that will hopefully provide knowledge for contemporary urban growers seeking to promote self-sufficiency and sustainability in 21st century Muncie.

Muncie became a world-renowned symbol for the possibilities of home food production and preservation with the arrival of the Ball Brothers from New York in the 1880s. They selected Muncie as the location for their new glass factory and began producing the iconic Ball canning jars.

Yet, as Muncie prospered and more residents came to rely on commercially purchased foods, home food production waxed and waned. When the need arose, citizens responded to community gardening initiatives with enthusiasm. Portions of the Ball State campus were reserved for Victory Garden plots during both World Wars. To make ends meet during times of global economic and political strife, residents did their part by planting vegetable crops at home and in local community gardens and by canning their own foods.

In 2013, Muncie’s post-industrial ‘rustbelt’ image is changing as residents once again become involved in sustainability initiatives and local food production. The community supports eleven different public garden sites, where residents from all walks of life raise food. While the gardens represent different initiatives, they have organized into a formal network: the Muncie and Delaware County Urban Gardening Initiative. This structure enables them to share resources more effectively, offer educational opportunities and encourage more public engagement.[iv]

At the same time, within the city and beyond its borders, small-scale farmers are also using sustainable methods to produce food for local outlets, including Muncie’s farmer’s market. While student researchers found few farmers can afford the formal organic certification process, many farmers still endeavor to produce food using more sustainable methods. In fact, Muncie’s Farmer’s Market has grown in size and scope in less than ten years and has become an important community gathering place. In addition to replacing rust belt and toxic waste with gardens and green belt, public gardeners and small-scale food growers are addressing the need for greater local food security—the ability of individuals, families and communities to meet their own nutritional needs. Food insecurity, a widespread social problem especially among poorer people, is the result of inadequate resources to secure and prepare food on a regular basis and can lead to hunger and even starvation.

GARDENING IS A GAMBLE

One of my students, Whitney Lingle—a Master’s student in the Department of Anthropology—is conducting ethnographic research with gardeners from Muncie’s African American community. Whitney’s work looks at the complexities of gardening, including how it might not be a “one size fits all” solution for local food insecurity.

Model for a WWII school Victory Garden - Frankfort, IN (image courtesy of IN.gov)

Model for a WWII school Victory Garden – Frankfort, IN (image courtesy of IN.gov)

Whitney Lingle on Poverty, Food Insecurity and the Hidden Costs of DIY

My thesis research explores the attitudes and practices of gardeners affiliated with the Roy C. Buley Community Center, a local non-profit with deep roots in Muncie’s Whitely neighborhood. Their mission is to engage families in Muncie through community-building activities, including an after-school program, and a children’s garden, built near the site’s playground. The plots are used by Buley community members, as part of summer education programs and comprise a link in Muncie’s growing network of community gardens. As a volunteer with the Buley Center, I spent time with children and parents and engaged them in conversations about cultivating food. Community center members expressed a range of attitudes toward food production, ranging from enthusiastic descriptions of gardening as a fun family activity to anecdotes of disappointing yields or guilt over not gardening more.

While gardening is considered to be a positive facet of local foodways and urban landscapes, my thesis research looks at the socioeconomic complexities of gardening. I examine two key questions: 1) How does gardening contribute to food security for Buley Community Center families? And 2) What makes gardening practical for, or prevents it from being a viable, and worthwhile, contribution to reducing household food insecurity?.

High-profile urban gardening efforts, and a renewed interest in systems of local food production, have contributed to a resurgence in the home food production movement in the United States. This do-it-yourself trend signals a shift in how Americans valorize local food production. This is not a negative phenomenon, but there is a risk in assigning virtue to poor families and communities who grow their own food over those who do not. Gardening should not be a prescription for distinguishing the “good” poor people from those less deserving of time, attention and resources, especially given the complexities of food insecurity.

For individual gardeners, especially those without reliable access to food, gardening is a gamble. Some non-gardeners within the low-income Whitely community told me that they are hesitant to invest their resources into gardening activities, given the recent record-breaking droughts and because there is no guaranteed return. One woman I interviewed cited “not having enough time to garden and cook” after work. Even successful gardening could result in an overabundance of one particular food, or an insufficient amount that does not justify the expenditure of time, energy and resources.

Other people simply do not have the tools, space or knowledge and experience required to successfully cultivate food. For example, some people living in apartments garden in community plots or containers, but that option is not practical for everyone. During an informal interview, one parent commented that without a yard, you have to pay “extra” to garden. Growing one’s own food is not always a viable option, but remains one piece of an evolving web of urban foodways in Muncie.

GOD IS GREEN

Another feature of local sustainability is the role of Christianity in promoting land stewardship. Combining faith and agriculture is not a new trend. Hoosier farmers relied on religion in good times and bad. Victory Acres farm sells organic produce to fund their urban ministry. Another one of my students, Britny Burton, who is an undergraduate majoring in Journalism, is examining how Evangelical beliefs are influencing local ideas about sustainability. Britny’s research explores the varied ways faith-driven food producers interpret significant environmental challenges, like global climate change, and how their attitudes are key to developing sustainable local initiatives.

Britny Burton on Restoring Body, Land and Spirit in the Indiana Heartland

Through Dr. Murray’s course and pilot study, I was introduced to the Victory Acres farm as a field site, and I decided to take my class research project one step further by making the farm the basis for a semester long multimedia project: www.victoryacres.weebly.com. Through my ethnographic research at Victory Acres I was able to understand how the products of the organic farm nourish bodies and spirits while the farm itself acts as a sanctuary for those working the land.

Pigs at Victory Acres eat leftover food that is donated by Taylor University. (photo by Britny Burton)

Pigs at Victory Acres eat leftover food that is donated by Taylor University. (photo by Britny Burton)

Victory Acres of Upland, Indiana, has been in the Himelick family since the 1830s, but the farm didn’t become an organic Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) until 2000, when Victory Inner-City Ministries (VICM) purchased the property. Terry Himelick still manages the farm while his son, Eric, is a pastor at VICM.

Victory Acres believes Christ is visible in every aspect of the farm. They open their doors to people from all walks of life who are struggling with personal and substance-abuse issues. Victory Acres invites troubled souls to work on the farm as a way to re-energize and restore their faith in God. Just as the organic food they produce is free of chemicals, the farm is a place for all to come and free themselves of evils they may be carrying with them and to strengthen their relationship with God.

Leslie Gottschalk, an agricultural coach, plants garlic. Garlic is a very important crop on the farm. Victory Acres uses garlic in the natural spray they put around trees to ward off unwanted pests. (photo by Britny Burton)

Leslie Gottschalk, an agricultural coach, plants garlic. Garlic is a very important crop on the farm. Victory Acres uses garlic in the natural spray they put around trees to ward off unwanted pests. (photo by Britny Burton)

William Buck, a farmhand whom I had the pleasure of interviewing, has a rough background and came to Victory Acres after living on the streets of downtown Indianapolis. Buck told me: “Victory Acres showed me something different. The whole essence of being here is to deepen my religion with Him because that’s what is going to ultimately root and ground me.”

Buck takes one day at a time and isn’t sure where he would be if he hadn’t come to the farm. He feels that God led him to the farm and that God will let him know when it’s time to go somewhere else. Most other farmhands I met were like Buck—they were at Victory Acres to overcome hardships or to escape unhealthy environments. Farmhands stay as long as they need to, and most end up becoming part of the Himelick family.

Charlie Akers (left) and Zach Hughes (middle) interview William Buck (right) about his path leading up to Victory Acres. (photo by Britny Burton)

Charlie Akers (left) and Zach Hughes (middle) interview William Buck (right) about his path leading up to Victory Acres. (photo by Britny Burton)

Britny Burton discusses William Buck’s daily routine on the farm.  (photo courtesy of Charlie Akers)

Britny Burton discusses William Buck’s daily routine on the farm. (photo courtesy of Charlie Akers)

FUTURE RESEARCH

There remains a need for greater awareness of the cultural dimensions of landscape restoration in the lower Great Lakes. While organic farmers are restoring the Hoosier Heartland through sustainable agricultural practices, there is work to be done with Tribal stakeholders as well. Native peoples have gardened in these lands for centuries, and more collaborative research with indigenous stakeholders concerning traditional environmental knowledge would be beneficial to those interested in creating a diverse and sustainable regional future.[v],[vi]

Cailín E. Murray is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.  Her work on environmental and indigenous issues has been published in Ethnohistory, The Journal of Northwest Anthropology, and in edited volumes such as Phantom Past, Indigenous Presence.  Dr. Murray and her students are working to expand BSU’s tradition of engaged research that promotes social and environmental justice in Muncie and beyond.

 

REFERENCES


[i] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2007. “Brownfields 2007 Assessment Grant Fact Sheet for Muncie, IN.”

<http://cfpub.epa.gov/bf_factsheets/gfs/index.cfm?xpg_id=1379&display_type=HTML>, accessed 01.24.2012.

 

[ii] BSU Ball State University, 2012. “Turning a brownfield green.” <http://cms.bsu.edu/features/global/immersivelearning/turningabrownfieldgreen>, accessed 01.24.2012.

 

[iii] Preston, Bryan 2012. “Urban gardening south of the tracks in Middletown, USA: an embedded qualitative GIS approach.”

<http://cardinalscholar.bsu.edu/handle/123456789/195945>, accessed 01.24.2012.

 

[iv] UGI Urban Gardening Initiative, 2012.

<http://www.beautifulmuncie.org>, accessed 01.24.2012.

 

[v] Emmons, Nichlas (Shawnee), 2012. “Understanding cultural revitalization among the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians” <http://www.academia.edu/2051929/Understanding_cultural_revitalization_among_the_Pokagon_Band_of_Potawatomi_Indians>, accessed 01.24.2012.

 

[vi] Myaamia Project, 2012.

<http://www.myaamiaproject.org>, accessed 01.24.2012.

 

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