Tim Reinbott: Where does your food come from? It helps people find answers | Booming city

Tim Reinbott isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

Marked with scars and calluses from long days on the family farm and then on MU’s research farms, Reinbott’s hands bear witness to hard work in the field of agronomy.

“I started counting all the scars on my hands one day from everything I’ve done over the years,” Reinbott said. “If you really want to learn, you have to get your hands on it.”

For 34½ years, Reinbott worked in soil content research with MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Now as director of field operations, Reinbott, 60, shares his research and the research of MU faculty members with the community through science nights, festivals and guest lectures.

“I love to ask a question and then dig and dig. Try to find the answer,” he said.

History in the making

One day, while walking around Jefferson Farm and Garden, Reinbott noticed a group of fifth-grade girls standing apart from the rest of the students and talking to each other. They weren’t really participating, but they weren’t causing any trouble either, so he let them.

After the briefing, he let each student choose a pumpkin from the field to take home on the bus. He had two rules: to pick only one pumpkin, and to be able to carry what you pick “because inevitably, the smallest child will have the biggest pumpkin”.

While helping the children cut the pumpkins from their stems, one of the girls approached and hugged him.

“It felt like a thank you,” Reinbott said. “I don’t know her background, maybe no one had done something like this for her before, but I still remember it.”

As director of field operations for the Central Missouri Research Extension and Education Center, Reinbott works with four other Missouri research stations to conduct agriculture-related experiments.

For example, Bradford Farm, 11 miles east of the MU campus, uses two drought simulators to research the effects of natural disaster on crops. At the Beef Research and Teaching Farm at South Farm, 5 miles south of campus, research teams study cattle genetics and breeding.

From research farms come solutions to problems in the agricultural industry around the world. Working on UM’s Experimental Farms can have a big impact on the quality of food on the plate.

Reinbott orchestrates field days, festivals, science nights and other educational events for the community to raise awareness of the research farms mission.

Most people don’t fully understand how their food is made, he said. During his education sessions, the chaperones often learn as much as the children.

On some days, Reinbott may teach fourth graders how math applies to the agricultural world. Other days, he runs an entire elementary school, from kindergarten through fifth grade.

The message remains the same: University research farms are here to serve them and show them where healthy, nutritious food comes from.

“Educating the community at large about where their food comes from is so important,” Reinbott said. “They’re very interested in it, more than you think. They really want to know.”

A history student

Some might call Reinbott’s office a miniature agricultural science museum. Others might just call it cool.

He found his office abandoned in a shed at Sanborn Field, the third oldest research farm in the world. The office was once owned by CM “Woody” Woodruff, a professor of soil science and director of Sanborn Field from 1966 to 1976, who helped make MU a premier location for the study of soil erosion.

The Sanborn Field plots were established in 1888. Today, students and researchers continue to study soil samples from the same plots using robots and drones.

“Nowhere else in the world can you have so many plots with such a long history that you can really dig in and get good data,” Reinbott said.

The chalkboard next to his desk was once used by cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock, who received the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her research in genetics. The painting came to Curtis Hall at MU where Reinbott met his wife, Joyce. He was a graduate student and she was a department secretary.

“They were cleaning out some of the labs and were about to throw out the blackboards,” Reinbott said. “Well, I said I’d take that!”

Hanging on its wall is a photograph of Dean of Agriculture Frederick B. Mumford with then-professor Merritt Finley Miller. Miller would go on to replace Mumford as dean.

In 1917, Miller and Professor Frank Duley began an experiment that measured soil erosion and water runoff. This was the first study of its kind and has been replicated across the country. The data from their research was then presented to Congress, which used it to combat the effects of the Dust Bowl.

The six original Duley-Miller plots can still be seen today, between the NextGen Precision Health Insitute and the hospital parking lot.

“I always say Duley-Miller saved millions from starvation, and NextGen is going to save millions through genetics (research),” Reinbott said.

The story repeats itself

Reinbott is from Bertrand, Missouri, which had a population of 604 when he was in high school and jumped to 718 in 2020.

He grew up on a farm, raising cattle and growing cotton, corn, soybeans, and wheat, and graduated from Charleston High School in 1980 on the day Mount St. Helens erupted.

Reinbott said his father, Martin, taught him the value of learning by doing. When he was about 13, Reinbott was given more responsibilities on the farm: loading the planter, choosing the right herbicide to use, and caring for the livestock.

“The day I left for college was the day we loaded the cattle,” Reinbott said. “My dad didn’t want to play with them anymore.”

He spent two years of his undergrad at Southeast Missouri State University and transferred to MU to complete his degree in agronomy.

During his senior year at MU, Reinbott took a course on soil fertility, which became his favorite. The professor trained his students to answer the why questions – when the students handed in the equations they had been working on during the week, they always had to explain themselves.

“It really taught us to think,” Reinbott said. “If someone says something to you, don’t take it literally.”

He transposed the lessons he learned into his work. For example, in a study of grass tetany, a fatal disease in cattle, he helped discover that the composition of fertilizers is critical to animal health.

Grass tetany occurs when cattle do not get enough magnesium from their diet. Scientists knew that plants contain low levels of magnesium in early spring, but they couldn’t figure out why or how to increase magnesium levels.

After more than 20 experiments, Reinbott, along with researcher and mentor Dr. Dale Blevins, found that phosphorus in the plant’s root regulated magnesium uptake in the leaves. By controlling the amount of phosphorus fertilizer used on the plant, farmers can prevent grass tetany from occurring in their livestock.

Reinbott encourages curiosity and other critical thinking skills with students, parents, and other community members who visit his research farms.

“I love talking to people about (soil fertility), educating others. It doesn’t do you any good if you can’t let people know about it,” he said.