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NRCS Soil Scientists Help Students Dig Deeper

By Quenna Terry, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has more to offer than just “Helping People Help the Land”.  The agency has always had a hand in educating youth of all ages as part of their mission.

For many years NRCS soil scientists from Lubbock and the South Plains have taken time out of their busy schedules to partner in student contests preparation and judging for collegiate and high school land and soil judging in the Texas Panhandle, South Plains and eastern New Mexico regions. 

The contests are usually set up in the spring and fall seasons.  In April, NRCS Soil Scientist Kelly Attebury said, “We set up 20 contest pits for 4-H and FFA totaling four pits per contest.  It took one full day to set up each contest.”

NRCS cooperates with the soil and water conservation districts, AgriLife Extension Service, area high schools and colleges/universities who sponsor 4-H and FFA land and homesite judging contests.

Attebury said, “NRCS is regarded as the leading government expert on the subject of soils and their uses and we are asked to judge the competitions as well.  By using our national standards this brings consistency across not only the state, but also the nation. This is especially important for the teams advancing to the national contests.”

“This year, more than 40 different schools participated in the qualifying contests to advance to the Texas Tech University’s Region 1 contest,” he added. “The contests expose students to the importance of understanding the uses and limitations of soils.”

After a general location is selected and cleared by DIGTESS for utilities, gas lines and more, the scientists select the location in the approved area and directs a backhoe operator on how to dig the soil pits. 

Attebury explained he and other soil scientists score the pits by determining features such as texture, depth, erosion class, permeability, runoff class, and overall capability class.

The contests for high school are divided into two categories of land and homesite areas.  Soil scientists say the land portion tests a student’s knowledge of basic soil features and suitability for cropland and rangeland interpretations as well as what land treatments might be necessary for specific conservation practices. Some of the practices prescribed might be construction of terraces on sloped land or brush removal required on rangeland.

For the homesite contest, Attebury and other scientists setting up the sites evaluate the location to determine its suitability for homes such as foundations for buildings, lawns and landscaping, septic system and sewage lagoon locations.  The student’s knowledge is then tested on these aspects of using the land outside of agriculture.

In addition to high school contests, NRCS works in cooperation with partners and hosts for collegiate competitions.

Last fall, NRCS Soil Survey Project Leader Craig Byrd of Lubbock was asked by Dr. David Weindorf, associate dean for research in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources from Texas Tech University (TTU) and endowed chairman of Pedology at TTU to assist with the 2016 Region IV Collegiate Soil Judging Contest hosted by TTU in New Mexico. 

Byrd and his team of scientists were joined by Attebury to cross the state line into New Mexico to do what they do best. 

“Local and regional soil judging contests conducted by high schools and universities gives NRCS a chance to assess possible future employees by different schools in Texas and even from out of state,” Byrd said.  “Since our office is located in Lubbock, we naturally work closely with TTU.  It’s a great opportunity to meet potential recruits and let them know about soil survey in NRCS and what we do.”

Weindorf said NRCS’ soil scientist staff was absolutely essential in hosting the contest.  “They were able to contact USDA cooperators for land access, provide equipment for site preparation (e.g., backhoe for digging pits), and provide technical staff for soil profile descriptions,” he said.  “As the landscapes and geology of this area of New Mexico are complex, having multiple people onsite for discussion was invaluable.”

Soil judging teams from the University of Arkansas, Oklahoma State University, Tarleton State University, Texas A&M University and Texas A&M University Kingsville participated in the contest.

Weindorf said although hosting the contest in another state poses real logistical challenges, it also made the contest all the more compelling.   “The geologic (e.g., sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic) and topographic diversity were eclipsed only by the beauty of running streams, forested mountains, and ideal weather,” he said.  “I’m confident we provided students with a valuable learning experience while also allowing them to experience the serene beauty of the Land of Enchantment.”

TTU and NRCS have been long-term partners in the National Cooperative Soil Survey; hosting these types of contests are just another example.  

Weindorf added, “We work on research projects together, collectively train students and conduct fieldwork.  Some of the questions that NRCS Soil Survey staff develop as part of their daily fieldwork form the cornerstone of graduate and undergraduate research at TTU.  And, we always encourage our students to consider internships and/or full time employment with NRCS upon graduation.

“Soils judging is one of the most essential training tools we have to effectively prepare the next generation of land management specialists.”

NRCS Soil Scientists Help Students Dig Deeper, Quenna Terry, USDA-NRCS PAS (2017, May)