Episode 4: Professor Tim Griffin of Tufts intersects nutrition, agriculture & rural-urban collaboration




Tim Griffin, Ph.D., is Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, Mass. In this episode he discusses his interest and expertise at the intersection of agriculture and the environment as well as the development and implementation of sustainable production systems. Dr. Griffin has lived and worked with rural communities and regions throughout his career before landing in Boston, but what makes him fascinating is his ability to cross various boundaries and silos to explore solutions that result in a win-win for everyone involved. He doesn’t deny the difficulty of this, especially within the food system, but he explains how he does this personally and how he purposefully incorporates this abundance mindset with the graduates students he works with.

Tim Griffin, Tufts University, Associate Professor
“To think that the challenges in rural environments are totally different and mutually exclusive from the challenges in urban areas—I actually don’t believe that.“
Tim Griffin
Director, Agriculture, Food and Environment program, Tufts University

About Tim

Timothy Griffin is the director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program, as well as an associate professor at the Friedman School. His primary interests are the intersection of agriculture and the environment, and the development and implementation of sustainable production systems.

Griffin’s current research is focused on the environmental impacts of agriculture (nutrient flows, carbon retention and loss, and climate change), and impacts of policy on adoption of agricultural practices and systems. His past research responsibilities have included field and lab components addressing: crop management, alternative crop development, short- and long-term effects of cropping systems on potato yield and quality, management strategies to improve soil quality, manure nitrogen and phosphorus availability, soil carbon sequestration and cycling, emission of greenhouse gases from high-value production systems, and grain production for organic dairy systems.


Show Notes

Welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. We recorded this episode in Boston, Massachusetts, during our invited visit with Tufts University faculty. Our guest this episode is Dr. Tim Griffin of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. I started off by asking him to explain a bit more about the school itself and his roles at Tufts.

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy covers a lot of ground as a school, a very interdisciplinary free-standing school of nutrition, rather than being a department of nutrition within another college, so that make us unique. And then, for the last nine years, I’ve led an interdisciplinary program called Agriculture, Food and Environment which covers about as much base as you would think it would with a name like that. So, we go all the way from farming and the impacts of farming, and profitability of farming, all the way through to who has access to what kinds of food and who does not, both in the United States and globally.

That’s big, I mean, those are big questions, big areas of research, and teaching. I guess I’m curious about part of your story on how you even got here to Tufts, so could you tell us a little bit about your history— Sure. And why Tufts was so interested in having somebody like you join their team.

Yeah, so my path here is a winding path, starting in Nebraska, at the University of Nebraska, back decades ago. You know, I trained as an agronomist and a soil scientist, so I’ve been doing interdisciplinary research, essentially, since I was a master’s student in Nebraska in the 80’s, continued on, and have had three very different positions, but three positions that I’ve been really fortunate to have. So, my first faculty-level position was in cooperative extension in Maine. It was a sustainable agriculture specialist, which was the first position like that in the United States, and I was the first person to have it. So, it put me kind of right in, you know, maybe a kind of similar situation that I’m in now where it’s not about focusing on one thing, it’s about thinking what the linkage is across many different things and, you know, heavily involved with farmers and farming. At that point, I was a scientist at USDA but was doing work all the way from greenhouse gas emissions, to producing organic milk, and when I was in that position, I actually knew about this program at Tufts in the School of Nutrition which started in the mid 90’s, but for a while it was quite small and it just happened to be that they were looking for a new faculty member. There was a person retiring, and somewhat on a whim, which is kind of how I manage things, I applied for it, and the— You know, I was interested in it, because it just continues this kind of interdisciplinary aspects of agriculture in connection to the broader food system. I think the university and the school were interested, because I’d been, you know, deeply involved in agriculture for a long time before I came here. It’d been, you know, 25 years or more doing research, but also working with farmers, you know, did a lot of public talks so could communicate, that kind of thing. So, the idea was, like, bring that into the classroom, which is basically what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years.

So, we’ve heard about Tim Griffin at Tufts, but tell us a little bit about Tim Griffin outside of Tufts.

I love books. Actually, I bring books, we do a literature day in one of my classes, and it’s just like, here’s my take on, you know, books that connect to agriculture or you know the agrarian ideas in the United States, and, you know, I love music, so I bring music into class actually.

Okay, what kind of music?

All kinds that— A lot of folk music, actually, both current but older folk songs, so I’ll bring in old Woody Guthrie songs to class. Lot of great messages in some of that old music. My wife and I, you know we bike a lot, been traveling a lot over the last six or seven years, around the United States. We actually drove across the US four or five years ago for the first time.

That’s awesome! I didn’t know that.

Yeah, yeah, we drove, actually a former student’s car, we drove it out to Sacramento to give it to her, so, that was fun, and, so I mean, we get out and about a lot. You know, this is the first time we’ve lived in a big city, so we explore a lot of it just, you know it’s, we’ve gone the last couple of days, public transit, walking, biking. So that’s you know, that’s the kind of things we do.

So, tell us a little bit you know, we’ve heard about you as a person now, a little bit more, and also you, and your work at Tufts, and even before— Tell us a little bit about your leadership philosophy and style.

Yeah, I wish I had a specific philosophy. I was thinking about this this morning and it’s, I would say my leadership is somewhat intuitive, so I don’t have a particular strategy, and even really, a particular direction that you know, like I’ve charted out what I want to be doing 10 years from now, or five years from now, which is kind of why, you can see, I’ve changed positions to very different things a couple of times, and been fortunate to do that, but you know, I think early in my career, if I was asked to do, you know, to take a leadership role, whether it was, you know, an extension program or running a research project. Early in my career, I think, my first question that I would ask myself is, is it important, you know? Is it important to me, but also whatever organization I’m working with or for? I quickly modified that to be important and interesting, so you don’t get a lot of important things that you don’t really care about. And then, as I’ve told many of my, especially doctoral students recently, I’ve added to those two things that it should be fun. Of course, not everything we need is fun. Not all of the roles that we have are fun, but I’m at a point now where I can provide leadership and actually it is on important issues, and it is interesting, and it is fun. But I don’t have a really specific set of criteria that I would say I want to lead this and this way. You know, very much involved in things that I do lead, so rather than saying, I’m the leader of this, and here’s the 27 tasks that have to get done, and then just assigning those to people, that’s way more directive than I am. It’s like, let’s figure out as a group, how are we gonna begin to address this question or this challenge, and then we will modify it as a team as we go along. So, it’s, you know, I may be providing leadership for it, but it’s not kind of me steering the ship, and for the complex type of problems that I work on, both in the agricultural realm, but the broader food system, it has to be flexible. You have to be able to think about, like, what are the different pathways that we can follow here, and you don’t want to lock yourself into one, because you can’t— If you do that, you might come to a solution, so to speak, but it might not be the best solution, so, you know, recognizing when you need to change course, those are all things that, you know, those are all open as far as I’m concerned when I have, whether it’s a team of students, which I do a lot of, or you know, efforts that I’m involved in that are you know, academic colleagues, but also colleagues in government, colleagues in industry. It’s still about, you know, figuring out, are we still on the best course to be able to address whatever challenge or opportunity that we’re talking about?

I really want to circle back to what you’re saying, ’cause I think this is really important, so of course, part of the purpose of the Rural Futures Podcast is to talk with leaders and mavericks; people really trying to create a different future in their own unique way, and I think what you’re touching on, is the fact that leadership itself is changing, and all this have this sort of unique approach, but at the same time, you know, at the Rural Futures Institute, we talk about future-focused leadership, and you clearly have an element of that in what you’re doing, so being able to think about the scenarios is important, but at the same time realizing the path to get there has to be an open, flexible one, especially with these complex systems.

Yeah, and I think that’s exactly right, and I mean the experience that I bring to a lot of this is what I started with a few minutes ago which is that I was very early on, exposed to being, as a scientist, exposed to interdisciplinary research and problems, and when I came here it didn’t take long to realize that as an educational program here, you have these complex challenges within the food system, and to solve those, literally you need some people in the room that can think across the boundaries, all the way from agriculture to nutrition to health, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you want the whole room filled with people like that, but basically, that’s one of the roles that I play. But it’s very much also what we’re thinking about when we provide opportunities to our students in the classroom and out of the classrooms, is that many of them, they are going to play exactly that role, and they might be doing it in a company, they might be doing it in not profit, they could be doing it at USDA, or a state department of agriculture, but they can actually, you know, rather than saying my specialty is this, they have expertise in one or two areas, but they’re also able to see across these boundaries, and that’s, for me, that’s the fun part of what I do, and I’ve, you know, opportunities that I, even that I’m, you know, just initiating right now, they have that as a very, very identifiable feature, and it’s something that I’ve done a lot of for a long time, so it’s, you know, I’m taking advantage of the fact that I’ve been doing it for thirty something years. And it’s— The difference is that there is— I have a group of colleagues that are across the country, that are about at the same career stage as me, and we’re all, we found that we’re all doing that, but we all learned it by doing it. It was 30 years ago, 35 years ago there was very, very few mavericks out there that were thinking in that way.

Yeah, agreed.

Now it’s very different, to where we can actually incorporate that into how we work with students, how we do research. That’s what’s changed, and I just happened to be a person that was kind of ready to do that because of my background, because of the experiences I’ve had previously.

I think it goes back to you being a maverick, for the reasons we’re even here. You know, one of the reasons we’re even here, but it’s also about these relationships that you keep talking about. Yep. You know, one of our team members, Tracy Klein, is really one of the reasons we’re here, because of her relationship with you— Yep. And your wife. Yes. And this is really how things happen. Yeah. But I think, too, it makes me think about, as we’ve connected online and gotten to know each other better, why have Rural Futures Institute come and be part of the world of Tufts University?

Right, well, one of the reasons is exactly what you said, is, I think it’s important to build those relationships and have those conversations, and it’s, some of my experiences here, and the fact that I’m still connected to places like Nebraska, but I’m also connected to other rural areas.


I’m still connected to, you know, things going on in Maine, because we lived there for a long time, and I’m still connected to farms in Maine, in a very different way than I was, maybe earlier, but there’s, you know, there is this big set of challenges, and to think that the challenges that are faced, and the solutions are always totally different in rural environments, whether it’s in Nebraska or in Honduras, or whatever, anywhere in the world, are totally different and kind of mutually exclusive from the challenges in urban areas. I actually don’t believe that. There are differences, but there’s also similarities.

A lot of overlap.

Exactly, and you know, when you’re talking about the food system, there’s an obvious linkage, and that is that most, but not all of our food, is produced in rural areas, but most, but not all of our food is consumed in urban areas, so there’s a basis for what could be a lot of opportunities, or it could be a bit of a tension, right, of we’re just producing things and we’re sending it to cities and that’s one interpretation; I actually don’t buy into that one either. But if I’ve learned one thing, especially when I was early in my extension career is that there has to be at least a handful of people that care about it enough that they’re gonna enter into conversations repeatedly, knowing that, at the end of the one-hour meeting, you actually may have no idea where it’s going, and I’ve done that hundreds of times, and sometimes it’s like it doesn’t go anywhere, and again, not everybody’s gonna do that, because not everybody thinks that’s interesting or fun. I actually do, and some really interesting things have come out of it on the research side, on the education side. Some of the things I’ve done, you know, being involved in state level policies, national level policies, started with just, like, a random conversation with somebody that I met or somebody that was introduced to me, and with the Rural Futures Institute, of course I have a connection to Nebraska, and I have a connection to people on your campus.


For a long, long time, and so that, I was visiting, I’ve been visiting your campus off and on since I’d left Nebraska 30 years ago.

We appreciate that. Any engagement, you know, I think it’s so important.

So, you know that there, I was making those kinds of visits, and then you know, realizing that this was going on, and some of the things, some of the conversations we were having here, and when I met all of you, in person, a year ago this month, it was really obvious to me that this is the point we wanted to get to, is you know, having you all here, and at some point, we’re gonna reverse that.

That’s right.

And we’re gonna come there. And I think it’s you know, if nothing else, it’s just really a good example of, you do need to be able to have the conversations, and think about what are the things that we might be able to do in common that there’s no possible way that we could do individually, and it takes time and effort, but it also takes this. It takes people actually. It would be impossible to envision this on email.

So, Tim, you’ve talked a lot about the conversations, and getting conversations started, so tell us a little bit more about how you get to action, and take those challenges, and turn them into opportunities and solution.

Yeah, that’s a great question, and the conversations are important, and but they are really the starting point, so that, you know, for example, you and I talking, but the goal is: what is the common ground between our interests and then what are the things that we could do, and we may be thinking about trying to solve a particular problem or being an optimist, we could be thinking about what’s a particular opportunity that we could address together, that again, maybe has benefits kind of across the spectrum. So, I think that’s a piece of it, but our discussion earlier about, kind of conversations, is really to get that common ground identified, and then it is very much about what are maybe different and innovative ways that we can address those challenges or opportunities? And those are actions, and we’ve you know, thinking about, the involvement of students here is one of the things that we’re interested in. Sometimes it’s a very specific action, where they might work with a non-profit, maybe in the Boston area that has a very specific need that is around one of those challenges. So, when we talked yesterday to students, undergraduate students that were very interested in one, providing, you know, families that are struggling with, you know, complete meals, but then, how do you get there? And they got there by essentially establishing an organization themselves, and saying these are the three things and then like, here’s the infrastructure that we need. So, here’s the machine to wrap the meals. Like a meal wrapping machine which I had not heard of before. So, you know, they probably started with conversations, but they ended up with, it’s actually a program, and it’s actually delivering food to families in the Boston area that are struggling. So those are actions.

What I loved their food to recovery concept is that they got to action, but like you’re saying, they took ownership of it. Oh yes. You know, they knew nobody else, maybe was gonna step up to the plate, so when you talk about entrepreneurial students, and how they’re looking at the solutions, they took action, but they also pulled in a lot of other partners, and stakeholders that they were gonna work with, so it wasn’t just a solution they provided, but it was also co-created with end users and other collaborators in mind.

Yeah. And I’ve talked to, I mean this, the idea of who do you get as stakeholders? I’ve had many, many conversations with students here about not having preconceived notions about who should the stakeholders be in the room? That some of the really interesting things come when you get unconventional partners, that you know, in agriculture back decades ago when I was doing a lot of sustainable agriculture work, we didn’t draw lines between, like, we have a group that runs small, organic farms, and then we’re gonna talk to them about these things, but we’re gonna talk to larger, dairy farms about another set of things. We actually brought them into the room and said, you know, what’s the 87% of things that you actually agree on, and let’s start there. And then, what are actions that we can take? So, it is, it’s a critical piece, and I very much, you know, the conversations we’ve had about how does RFI work in communities, and what role do students play? It’s like, you go into the community, and you ask them what’s the challenge, and how do you think we can move forward? And that’s a pretty good analogy for a lot of what we do here. And sometimes it’s, you know, somebody emails me, or another faculty member, and says, “Can you be “on this committee?”; state level, national level, global. And you say yes, and then the idea is, what are we gonna get to? What’s the action we’re gonna take, and what do we think is gonna happen? They can be grand efforts that take three years of your time, or it could be, you know, a group of students who works with a non-profit, or with a government agency for a year, and they can move those opportunities down the road at least a ways, so conversations are the starting point and the goal is the action and what happens.

Yeah, that impact piece from it all, is so critical as well, and I think one of the other ways we’ve really connected is, you know, around students. Sure. Like the conversations around students, the importance around students, and I just, our whole team really just values the way you teach, and I mean, I think your sincere passion and wanting to see those students succeed, and really taking some novel approaches to getting them involved. I mean even having a student from York, Nebraska, here to be part of these conversations.

We’ve had quite a few students from Nebraska, so. Yeah, and that’s part of that connection, right? Yeah.

So, for them to be able to have an experience at Tufts and go take that back to Nebraska or go wherever with it is just so critical. So, you dive a little bit into your leadership philosophy around teaching and student experiences.

Yeah, I’ve told students that since I came here, I came here because of the students. I met a group of quite a few students when I came here to actually do my interview, my job talk, if you will, and then I got to talk to those students afterwards, as you’re going to talk to students after your seminar today, and realized that they had some really, really interesting perspectives. They didn’t, necessarily, they weren’t different than mine, because their experiences were different, but very committed to trying to do certain types of things, and very smart. We have, you know, really, really, super students here, and they are the reason I came here, and they’re, you know, the primary, or one of the primary reasons that I come in every day and you know, being able to bring some of my reality in the classroom is part of it, but I get a lot back from them. They do have different experiences. They’re, you know, uniformly younger than I am, so they have a different set of experiences, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. So, it is an interaction, and you know, there’s educational curriculum, but then there are other kinds of experiences and you know, even on the research side of we have a funded research project. We’ll find a couple of master’s students, and you know, a doctoral student, and that becomes the team for the project, and we’ve had students that have worked on, you know, specific projects, through a master’s degree and into a PhD for four or five years on one project, and there the thing that we’ve tried to do, is to again, not have it be where myself or someone else is saying okay, here’s your analytical task for the next week, and just go do that, and then bring it back next week. There’s a lot of complexity here, and we may not actually know how to get from point a to point b, and then it becomes all of us, and they’ve been really, really entrepreneurial about trying to figure out like, where do you get the right kind of data, and then how do you kind of check the quality of that data, and then how to use that data, and that’s step one. And then how do you do that again, and again, and again? We did this intentionally on some regional food system research where we just said they’re gonna be, they’re not gonna be our students, they’re gonna be our colleagues, and they have their contributions, and we have ours, as faculty and scientists.

That’s such a great model.

But they’re not ranked. They’re not, one is more important than the other. It’s that they’re different, and of course, they’re learning while they’re doing it, but so are we. Right, right. And the type of research I do now, I was not, I was doing zero percent of the type of work I do now when I was at USDA. So, all the work I do now is different in kind of form and function than it was when I was a faculty member, and when I was a USDA scientist, so I’m learning as I go, which I’ve done my entire life. It’s like, sure I’ll learn a new research area. I’ll learn how to measure greenhouse gases, whatever. So, they end up being, you know, key parts of our team that you couldn’t see how the team is gonna do the work unless you have their expertise, and if they weren’t involved, then you have like this blank, and it’s just not gonna happen, or it’s gonna be much, much slower.

In addition to, you know, thinking about urban and rural and those two worlds coming together more, which is one of the areas of the RFI purpose, is, you know, higher education itself is changing so much and I think the way that you’re approaching, just the team concept with students is so critical as we move forward, but how do you see the future of higher education evolving?

I think that there are, there’s certainly more places now than there were as we were talking about, 25, 30 years ago, where as a student, which could be a graduate student, but even an undergraduate student, that can be in that kind of environment, and be part of a team that’s looking across kind of a range of issues all at one time, that was, that would have been a very unique experience when I was in graduate school. I was lucky enough to actually experience it both at Nebraska and at Michigan State where I did my doctoral work, but I would say very much it was the exception, and not the rule. There are more opportunities like that, both you know, land grant agricultural universities, but even at you know, larger, private universities, and even small, private universities and Tufts is kind of in-between those two, because we do many things. You know, we have that school and a dental school and all of those, so we’re not just liberal arts campus. We’re a research university here, so those things are changing. They’re not changing uniformly across all institutions, and I mean, one of the things that you see, is a school like Friedman and a program like Agriculture, Food and Environment. We’ve had this program for almost 25 years and the school is now about 40 years old, but you’re seeing those kinds of efforts be initiated, and sometimes you look at them and you say, that seems like maybe an odd place for a program to like have to start. Even here, I mean that we’re right in downtown Boston right now, and you know, I talk about agriculture every day in my job. So, but partly that’s because we don’t have any kind of history that says we can’t do that, right?

Right, absolutely, you’re building it as you go.

Yeah and even, you know, we were talking yesterday about the involvement of law school and some law programs. Right. And many of those that are interested in agriculture, that are interested in the farm bill, things like that, are actually at private university law schools rather than public university law schools. And I don’t, I don’t see that, and I don’t bring it up as, well, that’s the way that it should be, or that’s right or that’s wrong, it’s just literally that’s the way it is, but part of it is the objectives of different institutions are different, so we’re seeing it a lot in private universities where there are programs that focus on broad issues around, particularly around the food system, and then there are food systems programs which kind of look at how is it all connected? We do those things, but also, you know, I’m a scientist, so we actually bring science into the program. That’s one of my roles here. Higher education is changing, but it’s always changed, and it’s not, maybe it’s changing in unexpected ways, and I expect that some institutions will continue some very, very disciplinary efforts, ’cause you need some people that are trained with a really, really deep expertise, but more of them, and in the private sector are realizing that you do need some that can think across those boundaries going back to where we started and that’s very much how we see ourselves here both as a school and as a program, and our students.

I mean we talk about it explicitly, rather than just kind of conceptualizing it. It’s like, what opportunities would you provide a student so that they can get good at being able to do that? So really providing opportunities but also taking that systems approach and reaching across and creating new partnerships because that’s how this is, and it’s how it will continue to go.


So, as we kind of wrap up here, I’d love to know your advice, you know. Like what words of wisdom is Tim willing to share with our audience?

Well, one is that, you know, if there’s a challenge or a grand challenge, there are more than one way, there is more than one way to address those, and I’ll give you a specific example around just the interface between agriculture and farming in the environment. For a long time, it even in my own kind of view of that, the way that we would look at that is, if there’s an environmental problem, what kind of government action could we take? Now maybe it’s the state of Nebraska, maybe it’s USDA, maybe it’s EPA, but that’s where it’s gonna start, and for a lot of those issues around environmental issues but also social issues around things like farm workers and how they’re treated, maybe at the current moment, maybe for the last five years, it’s hard to envision like, that there’s gonna be a grand change federal level— Right, right, absolutely. And what we’re seeing instead, is pressure from all the way from consumers that’s coming through the supply chain in the private sector saying, we think that this is important, and so farm workers would be one. Things like potentially labeling foods that contain genetically engineered products. We’re not there yet, although we’re starting to see it, but it’s not mandated by the government. It’s actually because the consumers at the other end of the supply chain are saying, “We want that ‘information.’”

That’s right.

And so, I guess my advice is that we need to think broadly about like, what is innovative and not have it set up at the very beginning as you know, if we solve this problem, I’m gonna win and you’re gonna lose. I think that we’ve used that approach too much, and we should be thinking about, what are ways that you know, for example, farmers benefit, but consumers also benefit, because a lot of times we say no they’re in tension with each other. I don’t know why that has to be. And if it’s a policy or a program, fine. If it’s the private sector mechanisms, fine. I’m pretty ambivalent about which it is, but I think we should be thinking about all of them, much more broadly than we have in the past.

I think it’s so great to point out that thinking about it, so it’s not win lose, but there’s a future of abundance for everyone if we can do this a little differently and have a different mindset moving forward. Oh, I agree completely.

Yes, and that’s very much the way that we again, not only think about it, but that’s how we talk about it, is you know, I bring up scenarios or prompts in class that are, you know, here’s the issue, and it’s been addressed in this win lose way and these five different stages. What’s a potential way to address this that the very first thing is that you do not set up a win lose? And it’s hard. And when you think about like, the entire food system, but it’s not impossible, it’s just taught.

But I think, you know a lot of times in our culture in the US, we’re, it’s like a competitive culture. Yeah. So, it’s like win lose, instead of what’s the overall win for everybody involved, and how do we create a new system to do that? And a new thinking, and a new leadership, future-focused leadership that it’s gonna take to make that happen?


Well thank you, Tim. That was very thoughtful information, but also very actionable.

Thank you.

So, I think I would challenge our listeners out there to really think about ways they can have a mindset shift as well, if they haven’t already. Like, how do we do this a little differently? Yep. How do we do it together? How do we do it together?

Right, because if this is gonna be a sustainable planet for everyone, we’re gonna have to do it that way.

That’s right.