Tim Reinbott isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
Marked with scars and calls from long days working on the family farm and later the MU research farms, Reinbott’s hands demonstrate the hard work in the field of agronomy.
“I started to count all the scars on my hands one day from all the things I’ve done over the years,” Reinbott said. “If you really want to learn, you got to get your hands in it.”
For 34½ years, Reinbott has worked in soil content research with the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at MU. 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 get a question and then just bore down and dig into it. Try to find the answer,” he said.
History in the making
One day, while giving a tour of Jefferson Farm and Garden, Reinbott noticed a group of fifth-grade girls standing away from the rest of the students, talking among themselves. They weren’t really participating, but they weren’t causing trouble either, so he let them be.
After the informational session, he let each student pick out a pumpkin from the patch to take home on the bus. He had two rules: Only pick one pumpkin, and be able to carry what you pick “because inevitably, the littlest child will get the biggest pumpkin.”
While helping the children cut the pumpkins from their stems, one of the girls came up and gave him a big hug.
“That was like a thank you,” Reinbott said. “I don’t know her background, maybe nobody had done anything like that for her before, but I always remember that.”
As director of field operations for the Central Missouri Research Extension and Education Center, Reinbott works with four other Missouri research stations to conduct experiments related to agriculture.
For example, the Bradford Farm 11 miles east of the MU campus, uses two drought simulators to research the effects of the natural disaster on crops. At the Beef Research and Teaching Farm at South Farm 5 miles south of campus, research teams study livestock genetics and breeding.
From the research farms come solutions to problems in the agricultural industry around the world. The work at the MU experimental farms can have a big impact on the quality of food on the dinner plate.
Reinbott orchestras field days, festivals, science nights and other educational events for the community to spread awareness of the mission of the research farms.
Most people don’t have a good understanding of how their food is made, he said. During his education sessions, the chaperones are often learning just as much as the kids are.
Some days, Reinbott may be teaching fourth graders about the way mathematics applies to the agricultural world. Other days, he’s leading an entire primary school, kindergarten through fifth grade.
The message remains the same: University research farms are here to serve them and show where healthy, nutritious food comes from.
“Educating the general community about where their food comes from is so important,” Reinbott said. “They have a lot of interest in it, more than you think they do. They really want to know.”
A student of history
Some might call Reinbott’s office a miniature museum devoted to agricultural sciences. Others might just call it cool.
He found his abandoned desk in a shed at Sanborn Field, the third oldest research farm in the world. The desk once belonged to CM “Woody” Woodruff, a professor in soil sciences and director of Sanborn Field from 1966-1976 who helped make MU a premier spot for the study of soil erosion.
The plots at Sanborn Field were established in 1888 researchers. Today, students and continue to study soil samples from the same plots using robots and drones.
“Nowhere else in the world can you have this many plots with this long of a history that you can really dig down and get some good data from,” Reinbott said.
The chalkboard next to his desk was once used by cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her research in genetics. The chalkboard came Curtis Hall at MU where Reinbott met his wife, Joyce. He was a graduate student, and she was a departmental secretary.
“They were cleaning out some of the labs and were about to throw the chalkboards away,” Reinbott said. “Well, I said I’ll take that!”
Hanging on his wall is a photograph of the 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. It was the first study of its kind and has been replicated across the nation. The data from their research was later shown to Congress, who used it to fight the effects of the Dust Bowl.
The original six Duley-Miller plots can still be seen today, between the NextGen Precision Health Insitute and hospital parking garage.
“I always say Duley-Miller saved millions from starvation, and the NextGen is going to save millions through genetics (research),” Reinbott said.
History repeats itself
Reinbott is originally from Bertrand, Missouri, which had a population of 604 when he was in high school and crept up 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 around 13 years old, Reinbott was given more responsibility on the farm — loading the planter, choosing the correct herbicide to use and taking care of the cattle.
“The day I left for college was the day we loaded the cattle up,” Reinbott said. “My dad didn’t want to mess with them anymore.”
He spent two years of his undergraduate at Southeast Missouri State University and transferred to MU to finish his degree in agronomy.
During his senior year at MU, Reinbott took a soil fertility course, which became his favorite. The professor trained his students to answer the why questions — when the students turned in equations they had been working on for the week, they always had to explain themselves.
“That really taught us to think,” Reinbott said. “If somebody tells you something, don’t just take it at face value.”
He has carried the lessons he learned into his work. For example, during a study of grass tetany, a fatal disease in cattle, he helped discover that the composition of fertilizer is critical to the health of the animals.
Grass tetany occurs when cattle are not getting enough magnesium from their diet. Scientists knew that plants contained a low level of magnesium in the early spring, but they couldn’t figure out why or how to raise the magnesium levels.
After more than 20 experiments, Reinbott, with researcher and mentor Dr. Dale Blevins, found that phosphorous in the root of the plant regulated magnesium uptake in the leaves. By controlling the amount of phosphorous fertilizer used on the plant, farmers can prevent grass tetany from occurring in their cattle.
Reinbott encourages curiosity and other critical thinking skills with the students, parents and other members of the community who visit his research farms.
“I like telling people about (soil fertility), educating other people. It doesn’t do you a darn bit of good unless you can get that out,” he said.