Faculty Spotlight: Joe Trumpey

Joe Trumpey | Associate Professor of Art, Environment & Natural Resources

Date: November 2016

Growing plants and animals is the cornerstone of Joe Trumpey’s creative practice. His passion for the environment and innovation drives his teaching methodology and focus on design that is less reliant on fossil fuel.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in Indianapolis. My environmental connection came from spending weekends in the forests of southern Indiana as a Boy Scout and as a pre-veterinary student working closely with veterinary hospitals.

imageWhat is your strongest food memory?

When I was a high school exchange student in Norway, my morning breakfast was herring in tomato sauce on brown bread washed down with a glass of thick, soured milk. It was a major culture shock for a kid from the Midwest who usually ate cornflakes for breakfast and equated fish with fish sticks. I’ve been an adventurous eater ever since.

What are you currently reading?

Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi—an exploration of the loss of biodiversity in the food system; and, The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability and the Return of the Local Economy by Gary Kleppel—a collection of essays about local resilience and how to get young people engaged with the land.

Have any particular authors, articles or documentaries had a significant impact on you? Which one(s)?

FARM SHOW magazine is a pragmatic look at innovation on the farm. The magazine allows subscribers to submit ideas and innovations related to conventional farming. Former UM Knight Fellow, Tracey McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table exposes the underbelly of the food industry to provide empathy with food workers we don’t usually think about.


What brought you to UM?

I was technically trained in science illustration. My undergraduate degree is in art and biology, and my graduate degree is in medical and biological illustration. I was working at the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University, when I was offered a position to teach medical illustration at the UM School of Art & Design. In 1994, I created an undergraduate degree program in science illustration.

In what ways does your work relate to sustainable food systems?

In my teaching and creative work, I explore how to design resilient systems that consider the relationship between food, energy, and water and that transition systems to be less reliant on fossil fuel.

Tell us about your current research interests.

I am interested in transition design, which is how materiality and food all intersect in building our culture. Right now, I’m spending most of my time writing a book about my farm/house. The book is stitched together with personal stories and homesteading recipes.

Do you have any advice for students interested in food systems careers? 

Get out there and do something in the food system! Try to find people that are doing good work and work alongside with them. On the ground experience is valuable for students with little or no pragmatic food/farm experience and it will help you understand the complexities and challenges of the food system. Growing plants and animals is a very creative practice, and once you get your hands dirty you will quickly understand the rewards and challenges of that work.

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not researching/teaching/working?

Working on the farm is the cornerstone of my creative practice. My wife and I have been farming for 25trumpey2 years, and we haven’t purchased meat or eggs in 20 years. We have chickens, ducks, turkeys, sheep, goats, hogs, rabbits, cattle, a huge vegetable garden, and an orchard on the farm. Our original goal was to produce 50% of our food, and we’ve recently surpassed that by 10%. Our farm is off the grid and we think about energy the same way we think about food—we use what is “in season.”

What classes do you teach?

  • In the winter, I teach ArtDes 201/Environ 305: Sustainable Food Systems. In this course, students go on field trips to farms, slaughterhouses, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and dairies. I try to connect students with the production side of the food system.
  • In the fall I teach ArtDes 310: Engagement Studio, which is a Design/Build class. This past fall we built a park in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit, including a swing set, picnic shelter, raised garden beds for a pizza garden, and a pizza oven shaped like a groundhog. The 2016 course will be designing and building a strawbale warming shelter for the community.
  • In the spring, I teach AdAbrd 311/391: Eco Explorers—a social design-build sustainability course. We have designed and built improved cook stoves in Tanzania, worked with school kids in Ethopia, designed and built treadle pumps in Madagascar and partnered with communities in Gabon to pilot a variety of technologies and ideas around sustainable food, energy and water. I also teach ArtDes 401/402: BA Capstone, which is a two-semester capstone course for art and design students.