Oct. 30, 2012
Students gain hands-on experience, make personal connections during soil judging contests
A few Northwest Missouri State University students are getting down and dirty again this year as members of the soils judging team. But while they can wash the dirt from their hands with little effort, the experiences and skills they are gaining will stay with them for years to come.
“I have learned so much and not just in the pits,” said Amanda McNees, a senior from New Market, Iowa, who is majoring in agronomy and agriculture business. Often, she added, the team travels to its destination days ahead of the contest in order to practice and study the landscape. “Soil judging is figuring out what the area is like, how the soils formed and also what your judges are like.”
Northwest’s soil judging team didn’t have to travel far as it hosted the American Society of Agronomy Region 5 Soil Judging Contest Sept. 17-21 at the Mozingo Outdoor Education Recreation Area. A total of 69 students from eight universities competed in the contest, including South Dakota State University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kansas State University, University of Missouri-Columbia, Missouri State University, University of Minnesota and Iowa State University.
Iowa State, Nebraska-Lincoln, Kansas State and South Dakota State were the top four finishers and qualified for the national contest. Two Northwest students – McNees and Mariah Stiens, a senior agronomy and horticulture major from Maryville – placed 15th and 26th, respectively.
During a soil judging contest, students describe and classify the soil profile in several pits. They describe the color, texture and structure, among other properties of the soil horizon. Team members use their observations to classify the parent material, water-holding ability and suitability for different uses of each soil sample. They also determine the soil characteristics within a time limit and rotate among the pits during competition. Students’ final descriptions are ranked in comparison to official judges to determine the winners.
“The pits were dry, which caused a few problems,” Michael Brown, a junior agronomy major from Skidmore, said of the soil during this year’s regional contest. “The weather was perfect, which made it much easier, but every contest has its challenges. Since it was here this year, it was a great opportunity to get a deeper education of our areas soils.”
The Northwest team, now in its sixth year, qualified for the national competition during 2009-2010 by winning the Region 5 Soil Judging Contest in Columbia. Northwest was the only NCAA Division II school to compete in the regional competition and claimed the victory over then two-time defending national champion Kansas State University.
Dr. Jamie Patton coaches the Northwest team, however, she was prohibited from doing so during this year’s regional contest because of the University’s hosting responsibilities. Northwest did not field a full team and Northwest students competed with Missouri State’s team.
“Dr. Patton is a very passionate, well-educated and outstanding person,” McNees said. “She puts a ton of work into our trips and contests to allow us to gain knowledge not only in the soil pits but outside of them as well. I would not have had this many great experiences and gained this much knowledge on soils without her.”
McNees’s interest in soil judging began while she was a high school student; she placed second in her state soil judging contest and competed nationally. After arriving at Northwest, she promptly joined the soil judging team on campus and has benefitted from opportunities to travel with the team to locations in Oklahoma, Nebraska, California, South Dakota and Kansas.
In addition to seeing other parts of the country, the students benefit from the connections they develop. Brown said he will use his soil knowledge in his future farming career, and McNees plans to work with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as a soil conservationist.
“Being involved in soil judging has allowed me to be noticed by many other employers as well,” McNees said. “One of the first things employers notice during my interviews is my soil judging experience. This has allowed me to get many internship and job offers.”
In the spring, the team will compete in the North American Colleges & Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) contest, April 3-5, 2013, at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
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