Gregg Sanford


Senior Scientist, WICST Co-Director

There are dozens of students, staff, and faculty within our midst who are working on organic projects, or who’s programs touch organic agriculture in some way. We’re starting to work on a ‘Cast of Characters’ clearing house to capture the breadth and depth of talent and inspiration in our UW organic community. While that’s in development, we’ll be spotlighting folks in our quarterly newsletters starting today with Gregg Sanford, Senior Scientist and WICST Co-Director.

How did you get to be here, now?

I studied botany in undergrad, then I had an existential crisis that led to me needing to find a way to leverage plant science to make the world a better place. That led to graduate school (agronomy) and getting into the work that Josh Posner was doing with WICST. It was field scale, real world ag, and what they were doing mattered to real farmers. Josh was thinking outside of the box and he was kind of the sole weirdo at that point. That was attractive for a hippy kid from New College. When Josh passed away it became my mission to keep it going, to help it grow, and to find stable support for it. WICST feels like a calling to me. It’s more than just a job. It’s a lot more than that to me.

How does WICST interact with and include organic agriculture?

In the 1990’s, when Josh was building this thing, the dialogue between organic and non-organic was rancorous. Organic farmers were increasingly vocal about agricultural pollution, pesticides, drinking water on and on, and non-organic growers were dismissive. Organic could’t feed the world, the thinking went. So Josh said, ‘instead of yelling at each other, let’s sit in a room, find the right questions, and build a real-world experiment’. He wasn’t interested in which one was better – no – he was looking for the nuanced and data-backed strengths and weaknesses of each. It was always about more than yield. It was net return and ecosystem services too. Josh brought dissident voices together to work on something bigger than any one person or program, and organic was a key part of that.

What have you learned over the last 34 years at WISCT?

A ton. One of the biggest take-aways is that organic systems can produce as much grain and forage as non-organic systems, so WICST has shown that the ‘feed the world’ critique isn’t an issue. Organics can do it. It’s more than that though – from a profitability standpoint organic tends to be the most profitable system that we run. However, from an environmental standpoint, the story is much more mixed. There are trade-offs. Our non-organic systems excel in soil aggregate size and stability and water holding capacity compared to organic, but organic rotations rank higher in microbial diversity. Nothing is ever clearcut, right? What’s interesting about what we’re finding is that it challenges the confirmation bias that proponents of both systems can fall into and look for. We all need data to challenge us to be better, and WICST has that in spades, for every system.

How can folks learn more?

Visit our site: WICST and email me anytime:

Alright, one last question: What’s something that the UW community doesn’t know about you

I was born in Okinawa and was an army brat. I traveled the world from a young age and come from a long line of military people – my Grandfather was on the joint chiefs of staff during the Korean war.

*[Editors note: Gregg also plays in a band that covers lots of Grateful Dead songs and I’ve noticed that he bears a striking resemblance to Bob Weir, founding member of The Dead (see image below). Right?!]