Witkowski recently graduated from the University of Maryland and is working for Cecil County as a conservationist.
Although he had been studying soil for just a couple of years, Witkowski had learned a lot in a short period of time. He was still surprised that he finished second.
"I didn't think I'd do that well because there were a lot of good people in it," he said.
“Learning how to describe and evaluate soils in the field is an important part of training for soil scientists,” says Chris Baxter, the coach for the winning team, and a professor at University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “These are skills that the professional soil scientist uses every day. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them. The students worked very hard and were excellent ambassadors for the U.S. and for competitive soil judging.” John Galbraith, a professor at Virginia Tech, was the coach for the second place team. “We are very proud of how the U.S. students represented themselves and their country, both in performance, character, and friendliness with other teams,” says Galbraith.
Students were selected based on their performance during the National Collegiate Soils Contest held earlier this year. The contest encourages team effort and individual knowledge in identifying, evaluating, classifying, and describing soil profiles. The contest is a joint program of the Soil Science Society of America and American Society of Agronomy. SSSA and its cooperating organization, the Agronomic Science Foundation (ASF), funded the students’ trips to Korea.
“Our experiences in Jeju were once in a lifetime opportunities,” says Witkowski. “We saw types of soils called Andisols and Melanic epipedons—which are not in abundance in the U.S. Seeing them was something new to all of us competing from the U.S. Seeing the soils was an experience, but meeting students from other countries interested in soils (and soil judging) was surreal. We had a great time meeting other people and looking at the soils.”
In the contest, participants described soil profiles using standard field techniques, classified the soil using either Soil Taxonomy or the World Reference Base, and provided interpretations for land use based on soil and site characteristics. Contestants were graded on the level of agreement between their descriptions and those made by a team of official judges from South Korea, the United States, Australia, and Hungary. The contest included an individual competition and a team competition where teams of up to four contestants worked together to create a single description. The overall team winner was determined by combining the individual and team scores.
Student competitors sponsored by SSSA and ASF were: Tyler Witkowski, Emily Salkind, Virginia Tech; Caitlin Hodges, University of Georgia; Kyle Weber, University of Wisconsin-Platteville; Bianca Peixoto, University of Rhode Island; Julia Gillespie, Virginia Tech; Nancy Kammerer, Penn State; and Brian Maule, Northern Illinois University.
In the United States alone, thousands of soil scientists use the skill of “soil judging” in their daily jobs. They look at and feel the soil to determine its health, carbon content, drainage properties and other factors. Using only their eyes, sense of touch, and a limited set of tools, they make land usage recommendations about agriculture, construction, wastewater treatment, recreation, and more. In addition, many companies who hire crop advisors look for excellent soil judging skills. The skills honed by soil judging are used by soil scientists around the world.
"The conservation district helps farmers keep their natural resources in check, to make sure they're not affected by erosion, and to keep the nutrients where they're supposed to be" Witkowski.
After graduating from Rising Sun High, Witkowski attended the University of Maryland where he planned to study engineering. "I found that engineering was designing little parts and CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and that didn't really fit with me," he said. "I was looking at different things like economics and political science when my roommate suggested agriculture. After taking an intro class the rest is history."
Witkowski graduated from the University of Maryland last winter and was hired full-time by the Cecil County Soil Conservation District.