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Digging down deep: Students compete in state soils judging contest

Sierra Miller, 15, a sophomore at Central High School, textures a sample of topsoil during the State FFA Soil Judging Contest held Tuesday at Woodbine Farm Market near Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Dozens of high school and junior high students spent Election Day doing some digging, not through ballots, referendums or measures, but for a chance to get their hands dirty in a statewide soils judging competition. Tuesday’s event was between junior high and high senior teams.

Shenandoah County schools had a strong showing as both of Strasburg’s teams placed second in their competitions. Central High School also qualified for a trip to the national competition, coming in fifth in the senior teams competition.

FFA students from about 15 schools formed teams of four to compete for a chance to travel to Oklahoma City in May for the national competition. The competition’s start was delayed following torrential rain in the morning, but students pushed through.

Brian Fisher is an agriculture teacher at Strasburg High School and coaches the soils team. He has been coaching for 18 years after competing himself as a student at Strasburg.

“I wasn’t as good at the contest,” Fisher said. “I think I’m a better coach than I was a contestant.”

A group of high school students stand in silhouette against rising fog on this hillside at Woodbine Farms during the FFA State Soil Judging Contest. Rich Cooley/Daily

Fisher took a team to the national competition in Oklahoma City two years ago. His team was third in the state last year.

Fisher’s excitement for the competition has rubbed off on his students. Aidan Keller is a junior at Strasburg High School who said he got involved with FFA and natural resources competition because of Fisher.

Besides soils judging, Keller said he has also competed in aquaculture, the Envirothon and the forestry competition. His forestry competition team will be competing for a state title this year.

With plenty of competitions to compare, Keller said soils judging is his favorite.

“This is probably my favorite because of all its components,” Keller said. “And it’s done pretty fast. It doesn’t take very long.”

Nathan McDonald, a former student of Fisher’s and a member of the team that went to nationals, said he enjoyed this competition for its hands-on aspect, too.

“It’s a lot of hands-on stuff. A lot of practical applications,” he said. “You actually get to go down into the soil pits…it’s a lot more hands-on than a lot of the competitions FFA offers.”

McDonald returned to the soils judging competition not as a contestant but as a state FFA officer. The hands-on experience he had as a student in FFA helped him transition into a career.

Jonathan Ames, a senior at Sherando High School, has similar career goals related to agriculture. He said he hopes to go into plant genetics and breeding. He is applying to Virginia Tech and has been accepted at Iowa State University.

“I kind of got roped into it by an adviser,” Ames said about the FFA competitions. “I really enjoyed it, and I kept going.”

Practical competitions, Ames said, keep things interesting and enjoyable.

“You get to get in, get your hands on, get some experience,” he said. “You get to learn as you’re doing it.”

Most competitors and coaches have long histories with FFA and soils judging but Tom Walton, a retired agriculture teacher from Powahatan, is a soils judging veteran. His first competition was in 1964.  That event was a semi-traumatic event, he said with a laugh. There were 30 contestants with their name on a big poster board with scores for everyone to see. Walton said he received the lowest score that day, but he has never stopped coming back for more.

Over the 43 years he’s been coaching soils judging teams, Walton has taken 10 groups to nationals. The opportunity for students to get out of their own backyard and see other cultures is important, he said.

“It’s tremendously gratifying for kids to be able to win a trip like that and to go and experience the different culture of people out there,” Walton said. “Particularly the Native American culture, which is prominent in Oklahoma City.”

Cultural understanding as well as practical skills building are reasons Walton said he enjoys teaching agriculture students. Half of the soils judging competition is determining what kind of agricultural use different soils have. The other is assessing homeowner uses. Most states break up the competitions, but in Virginia, the two are intertwined.

“Since their home is probably one of the most important purchases they’ll ever make in their lifetime, the soils that house is built on matters,” Walton said. “And the guy that sells it to them probably doesn’t know about soils, and if he did, he wouldn’t tell them the bad part about it.”

“As much as anything,” Walton continued, “I think soil judging teaches the kids that what they do on their farm or in their county has a real big effect on other people.”