When Washington State University’s John Reganold accepted the prestigious Organic Pioneer Award from the Rodale Institute on Sept. 17, the experience had a meaningful personal connection.
Reganold, a Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology, met Bob Rodale, son of Rodale Institute founder J.I. Rodale, in the 1980s. The younger Rodale died in a car accident in 1990.
“Getting this award blew me away because I spent time with Bob,” said Reganold. “He was a real visionary, and very humble and kind. I was always impressed with him as a person, separate from his vision of agriculture. Half of my award acceptance speech was about my meaningful relationship with him.”
Based in Pennsylvania and founded in 1947, the Rodale Institute promotes regenerative organic agriculture through research, farmer training, and consumer education. Bob Rodale took over as head of the nonprofit in 1971, after his father passed away. Since 2011, the Rodale Institute has given out the Organic Pioneer Award annually to research scientists, farmers, and business leaders who are working to support a healthier planet.
Reganold, a faculty member in WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, was flattered when he received the news that the Rodale Institute committee had selected him.
“Scientists I really respect have been given this award previously. It’s amazing that I’m seen as being in the same league as them,” he said.
The Organic Pioneer Award is among the most prestigious Reganold has received. He is also the recipient of the Science Research Award from The Organic Center and the 2015 Eminent Faculty Award at WSU.
“The awards are really nice, and they touch me,” said Reganold. “But it’s more about the people who are involved.”
Reganold developed an interest in soil science during the 1970s after getting involved in the environmental movement and talking to a friend who was studying the subject. While working on a bachelor’s degree in German, Reganold also took pre-med science courses, which helped with his acceptance into grad school. He earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in soil science from the University of California, Berkeley, and Davis, respectively.
“I was mainly interested in the environment, and soil science is the crest of the wave. If you don’t get the soil right, you’re not going to get the rest of it right,” said Reganold.
After graduating, Reganold found employment with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and later worked as a reclamation engineer at a mining company. In 1983, he accepted a research and teaching position at WSU. To date, he has studied organic and conventional farms across five continents, written numerous journal publications, and established himself in the global sustainability movement.
Reganold’s research examines farming’s effects on soil quality and health, comparing the impacts of conventional and organic farming. Over time, his work has expanded to include no-till systems, integrated systems, and mixed-crop livestock systems. He has also studied the financial aspects of farming systems, as well as energy use, groundwater pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and food quality and quantity.
“It’s not one-size-fits all,” said Reganold. “At the end of the growing season, I want farmers to see that they had high-yielding crops while protecting their soil, paying their workers well, and making a good living.”
After learning in the early 2000s that a number of WSU undergrads were interested in organic food and sustainability, Reganold helped lead the development of WSU’s four-year major in organic and sustainable agriculture. The program officially launched in 2006 and is available on the Pullman and Everett campuses.
Reganold enjoys witnessing his students’ passion for the subject material and strives to open their eyes to soil science’s importance as a resource.
“It’s crucial to get people involved in agriculture and food production so they know where their food’s coming from,” Reganold said.
He also cherishes the opportunities he’s had to meet and work with a wide variety of farmers, scientists, and students over the years.
“It’s been a wonderful, rewarding career so far, something I’ve been passionate about,” Reganold said. “I love the knowledge I’ve gained, the knowledge I’ve shared, and the people I’ve met.”