Students build life and career skills in soil contest

Stonewall Jackson FFA student Lindsay Zirkle, 17, puts in the finishing touches to her soil report. Max Lee/Daily

MIDDLETOWN — Like many of the other students who attended a soil judging contest at Lord Fairfax Community College on Wednesday, Allyson Neal, 16, of Strasburg High School, sees herself using the skills she’s learned through the contests years into the future.

“I would like to be an [agriculture] teacher and educate other students on something that I find so interesting,” said Allyson, who started attending soil judging contests three years ago.

Jim Highsman, a retired agriculture teacher who oversaw Wednesday’s competition, said that one of the great things about soil judging competitions is the opportunity they offer high school students to look at plots of land and determine what things the land can be used for. For people who want to work in home building and agriculture, the contests can help them build a solid understanding of what different kinds of land can be used for.

“If the students go on to study soils at a major college or university, having done this contest — they’ve got a leg up on a lot of the other students there doing the same thing,” Highsman said. “Because a lot of schools really don’t do this type of thing any more.”

And the skills involved in judging soil are not easy — at least according to Lindsay Zirkle, 17, and Matthew Seal, 14. Both said that there is a lot of memorizing involved in judging a small plot of land.

Matthew, who had not gone to one of the contests before, was a bit overwhelmed with how much there was to learn. Lindsay just viewed it as a fun challenge.

“You have to do different tests for topsoil and subsoil,” she said. “So everything from knowing the difference between the two and knowing what kind of soil it is to how to calculate erosion.”

Highsman referred to the contests as “a great career guidance tool” that can build high school students’ skills. If the students end up in a career in agriculture or as an archaeologist or home builder, they will use the skills for the rest of their lives. If they decide they don’t like judging soil quality, then they can get a better sense of what kind of career they’re looking for.

Many of the students at the soil contest on Wednesday enjoyed soil judging and saw themselves in a career where they would be using the skills they learned. Lindsay, for instance, said that she sees herself doing something involving agriculture.

She’s not sure what she wants to do within agriculture yet, and the job she sees herself doing has shifted over time.

“I was thinking about working in the animal industry, but now that I’ve done all of these farm tests, I may be an agronomist, maybe work in vaccinations,” Lindsay said.

But whatever she chooses, she said the lessons she’s learned will pay off.

“If you just know a basic few things about soil, you can basically do anything you want as a farmer,” she said. “It is very useful knowledge.”