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Soils and crops team wins second straight national championship

May 6, 2015

This year the UW-River Falls crops and soils team took home, for the second year in a row, first place nationally at the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) judging competition.

Senior Logan Ahlers placed second and junior Nikki Stehr placed third overall individually in the competition.

Crops and soils is a club that allows students to be more active in their major. When becoming an agriculture major, students can choose an emphases either in crops, soils or sustainable agriculture. They can meet others in their major and explore more than what they learn in the classroom.

“Judging is a way to take all that knowledge you learn in the classroom and apply it in a very hands-on competitive team format,” said Coach Holly Dolliver, associate professor of soil science and geology.

Ten students make up the team but only four of them can compete. Although only four people can compete, all 10 students practice and do all the classwork together. After the four who can compete are chosen, another four are put on the alternate team. The team was up against 15 other teams and 70 students.

Practicing for competitions, such as the NACTA, consists of “feeling dirt,” according to Ahlers. But feeling dirt is a lot more complicated than it sounds.

“Soil texturing, studying colors and how things are and why they are,” Ahlers said.

The soils and crops club trains for 10 weeks prior to the competition, plus 10 or 15 weeks of class, then go through focused training for 10 weeks and then the event. One thing that is incredible about soils is that it varies state from state.

Although the soils and crops team head up a few days earlier to the competition, the team is at a bit of a disadvantage because back in Wisconsin the soil is frozen when the team tries to practice, where as in southern states it’s not and they can just go outside and practice.

The UWRF team has a lot of indoor practices by collecting soils from all around and putting them in their indoor practice lab and students then have a chance to look at different soils even though its winter.

When it comes time for the competition, students are put into a pit, a five to six foot hole in the ground that the students stand in.

“We literally go into the hole and look at the wall,” Ahlers said.

They aren’t asked questions about the dirt but they have to state as much as they can about the dirt. Students need to be able to analysis everything about that specific soil. They state items such as structure, texture, what is it made of, how much sand is in it, what’s the strength of it and finally they have to state the suitability.

Suitability refers to if the soil is suitable to build a house or to put a septic tank there or not. After that, they go through all the interpretations of the characteristics.

“They do that for every single layer that is present,” Dolliver said.

The way that the judging works for the NACTA is by getting points. In order to get points students must describe the soil as best as they can and get as close as they can to the actual answer or description of that specific soil. The judges, who do this for a living, analyze the soil first then the students must match as closely as possible to the judges. This competition consisted of 920 points.

Ahlers, the club’s public relations officer, was told about the crops and soil club from many of his classes and joined the club back when he was a sophomore. This year was his second time competing and he took second overall in the judging, just missing first by one point.

Going into this competition, the biggest worry that Ahlers had was that he had not done the homework on the area they were going to. Last year, when he competed, he was thrown for a loop because he had not seen the kind of soil he was judging before.

“My biggest concern was not being able to do what I knew I could do and what we all knew what we could do,” Ahlers said.

Although this club is about learning and applying one’s skills in the field, it’s more than just that.

“It’s just getting to know people and networking and the resume builder because it’s really, really good on a resume,” Ahlers said. “You can make friends in it and your friends are [the] people you’re going to be in the field with and [the] people you’re going to be in the same industry with down the road.”

The soils and crops club is there to help further students who want to go into agriculture but it’s not just for agriculture majors; anyone from any department can join this club.