Almost every year, students from Franklin High School’s Agricultural Education class travel hours across the state to participate in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) state landjudging contest which is held each year in a different location. This year, however, FHS was the host of the event for schools from around the state.
“It was a nice change,” said Devon Deal, FHS Agricultural Education teacher and FFA advisor. Deal also noted, however, that it took a lot of work by a lot of people to put on this year’s competition in Macon County.
Held last weekend on Friday and Saturday, the 57th North Carolina FFA Land Judging Career Development Event (as it is officially known) brought students across the state, including 28 junior teams and 36 senior teams, with an average of four students per team. Altogether, some 300 students participated in the competition, along with their Ag. Ed. teachers and others who volunteered their expertise for the event. The event is a highly competitive contest for high school teams which did well in the year’s regional contests.
FHS hosted the event in conjunction with the Macon County Soil and Water Conservation District. Other sponsors of the event included the Macon County Farm Bureau, Southwest Resource Conservation & Development, Old Sage Farm, Duke Energy and the Soil Science Society of North Carolina.
The FFA land-judging contests are designed to promote education in the properties and uses of soils, explained Debbie Anderson, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who helped direct the competition. Anderson noted that both urban and rural schools have FFA chapters and participate in the land-judging program, which is relevant to a wide-range of interests, from farming to soil science to geotechnical engineering to environmental conservation.
“Our motto is, it all starts with soil,” Anderson said.
Teams from the more distant areas of the state began arriving as early as Thursday night in order to be fresh for Friday’s practice event, held on Jim and Sue Waldroop’s farm on Cat Creek Road. The practice event gave participants a chance to become acclimated to the unique topography and soils of Macon County, which may be very different from that of the coastal and piedmont areas of the state, explained Doug Johnson of the county’s Water and Soil Conservation District office.
On Saturday, the main judging event was held on the old Slagle Farm, where participants were received by Katherine and Dan Tinsley. Four large pits were dug on the property within the four flagged judging areas. Beside the pits were piles of soil marked “surface” and “subsurface.”
To the uninitiated, the sight of hundreds of young people crushing dirt between their fingers and squinting at the hilly slopes of the farm was unusual, to say the least. But according to FHS Ag. Ed. teacher Jenny Collins, the students study hard to be able to analyze soil by sight and feel and determine its best uses. First comes weeks and months of studying the land-judging manual. Then comes the fun.
“We actually go out all over the Franklin area, from Cowee down to Otto, and dig up holes in people’s yards and fields,” explained Collins. With the permission of the land owners, of course, the students get to “dig in” and practice analyzing the soil’s essential characteristics.
For the past four years, FHS has qualified for the state competition. This year, however, since FHS was the host of the event, Franklin students were not allowed to compete. Instead, they helped man the event.
Besides soil characteristics of texture, structure, consistency and erosion, the competitors also analyzed the land for slope, drainage, flooding hazards, and surface water flow. They rated the capability of the land and recommended specific treatments for agricultural uses. They also determined urban development limitations and noted special environmental concerns.
Elizabeth Driscoll, a soil scientist at N.C. State University who also spoke at Friday’s banquet, said that the students gain important life-skills and values by participating in the land-judging program, everything from critical thinking to problem- solving to environmental responsibility. “It’s these types of skills that I think will make you a successful person in life,” she told the students. She added that the knowledge that the students must master for the competition will help them make choices that protect the environment in the future.
Moving the contest every year ensures that competitors are constantly challenged. Having the event in a mountainous area was a good chance for students to focus on slope issues that are much less prevalent in the eastern part of the state, Deal said. She noted that teams from the western region did very well in this year’s competition.
Austin Kinley, a student on the senior team from West Rowan High School in Mount Ulla, N.C., took the prize for the highest individual score of the competition. The West Rowan teams were coached by Ag. Ed. teacher Clark Adams. The highest scoring team of the senior division was from R.S. Central High School in Rutherfordton, N.C., coached by Brandon Higgins. The team received a check for $1,500 from the North Carolina FFA Association.
Not all of the high scorers were from hilly areas, however. The Lumberton High School team coached by Jimmy Roberts took first place in the junior division. Chris Cannon, a student on the Jerry Jones’ team at Greene Central High School in Snow Hill, N.C., was the highest scoring individual in the junior division.
The winning teams are eligible to participate in the national land-judging competition to be held in May in Oklahoma. The annual, nationwide event is sponsored by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.