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Washington State University

In the field

WSU student Katie Doonan connects her interests in sustainable and organic agriculture with health and medicine.

Katie Doonan came across the quote during her sophomore year.

She doesn’t remember who posted the image of what appears to be a sign on a wooden wall or door, but the saying resonated with her. It reads: “Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains.”

“Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains.”

A quick online search shows it’s sometimes attributed to the late Paul Harvey, a longtime on-air radio personality who’s known — among other things — for his “So God Made a Farmer” speech, delivered at the Future Farmers of America National Convention in 1978. In this case, though, it’s attributed to the Farm Equipment Association of Minnesota and South Dakota.

“It popped up in my Facebook feed,” Doonan says, noting the saying has since become her favorite “words to live by” because it speaks to “the importance of agriculture — and how small our influence truly is.”

She’s saved the quote to her smartphone, where it serves as a good reminder and guiding principle for her studies and future career goals.

“I’m looking at how food production affects human health,” she says. “We’re going to have more deficiencies in ourselves if the food we’re eating has deficiencies. I love the medicine side, and I love the agriculture side.”

Doonan grew up on an alfalfa farm in California and came to WSU with a clear idea of what she wanted to learn. Her desire is to help keep people healthy through sound agricultural practices.

She’s still considering whether to move on to medical school to become a doctor or go to graduate school to continue studying agriculture. But, eventually, she wants to help run the family farm with her two brothers.

It’s located outside Bishop, California, where Doonan grew up and graduated from high school. WSU Pullman was a big adjustment. “I had a class with more kids than my entire high school,” she says.

Still, it felt like the right fit. “This was the only school I visited that — when I came here and told them what I wanted to do — would work with me. They said, ‘Yep, we can make that happen for you,’ rather than telling me what I should do,” she says. “I really feel like they listen to me here.”

Doonan has worked closely with her advisor, Regents Professor John Reganold, director of WSU’s organic agriculture systems program and 30-acre Eggert Family Organic Farm, as well as Associate Professor Kevin Murphy in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.

“I go in to their offices and talk to them a lot. It’s really encouraging,” she says. “I know these are people who are really busy and facilitate many important projects, but they always make time to talk to you. I’ve had so many good connections here with all of my professors and advisors.”

Her advice to incoming students hinges on those experiences. “Making connections is the best thing you can do,” she says. “Talk to your professors. That’s where a lot of my opportunities have come from.”

Freshman year, Doonan worked as a lab assistant, helping a doctorate student study quinoa roots’ soil interaction through CAHNRS IGNITE undergraduate research program. Sophomore year, she interned at the Palouse Conservation District, working on riparian habitat restoration. “I got to be outside planting trees,” she says, “so I can’t complain.”

She was also featured, along with Reganold, in an article titled “Planting Seeds: Sustainable agriculture programs produce global problem solvers” in USA Today’s 2018 special edition on the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Junior year, she worked on WSU’s Eggert Family Family Organic Farm, harvesting spinach and other produce. She also serves as the vice-facilitator for the CAHNRS Ambassador program and studied agriculture in Ireland.

In fall 2018, Doonan went to Dublin for a semester abroad, taking six classes — from Irish studies to organic agriculture and botany — and getting in touch with her own roots. Her great-great-grandparents come from Donegal. “I got to go there, and there’s actually a spot on the map that has my last name. It was a little suburb of Donegal, so that was surprising and just really cool.”

Also cool: she expects to graduate in May 2020 with minimal debt. Scholarships were one of the reasons she selected WSU. Doonan won a Cougar Award, a scholarship which helps out-of-state undergrads with high marks, as well as multiple scholarships from CAHNRS.

Summers, she works as an emergency room technician and volunteer firefighter and EMT for her local fire department — while also helping her family with harvest. She’s a 13th generation farmer on her mother’s side and can trace her lineage all the way back to 1640, or “about three ships after the Mayflower.”

She credits her strong work ethic to helping out on the farm from an early age. “I started out with irrigation. We used to have wheel lines that we’d have to move every day. I also did a lot of cutting hay and would drive the swather.”

As a farm kid, she says, “you definitely get put to work. I still help out a lot with cutting hay. I still want to keep my hands in the soil while I’m going forward with my goals.”

By Adriana Janovich