GALLAGHER: FFA members enjoy a day of digging in the dirt

September 30, 2018
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FFA member Cade Metzger, a junior at West Lyon High School, examines soil in a pit dug at the Eric Nelson farm east of Moville, Iowa, on Thursday. Some 128 FFA members from Northwest Iowa participated in the test hosted by Morningside College's Ag Department.

MOVILLE, Iowa -- Christian Koch, a senior at Le Mars Community High School, took a soils sample test at Morningside College on Thursday morning. And then, piling into a vehicle with fellow students and FFA Adviser Danielle James, he examined the map distributed for the “field trip” portion of this FFA competition.

“I didn’t need the map,” Koch said, “I’d been working in that area the previous night. I’d driven right by that field.”

The field was a tract on the Eric Nelson farm east of Moville, Iowa. Nelson welcomed Rich Crow and Melissa Nelson of Morningside College’s Ag Department as they hosted 128 Northwest Iowa FFA participants for the Northwest Iowa District Soils Judging contest. The winners would advance to the state meet in Ames, Iowa, in two weeks.

Crow and Nelson worked with FFA leaders from 32 Northwest Iowa schools in administering the written exam at Morningside. The group then traveled 20 miles east for an in-depth look at four pits dug by Gary Bruce of Bruce Construction.

“They look at the soils and find out if a site is suitable for something like a home construction, a septic system, for drainage tiles, and how the land might be farmed,” said Crow, an assistant professor of agronomy who has helped lead the college’s ag department from its start with 11 students five years ago to one featuring more than 80 students majoring in the field while another 30-plus minor in this academic area.

“Morningside had an ag program in the 1990s and it was focused on livestock marketing,” said Crow, a native of Garnavillo, Iowa. “That major closed when the (Sioux City) Stockyards closed.”

The applied agriculture and food studies major currently has these areas of study under its umbrella: ag business, food safety, environmental policy and political policy.

“Five years ago, the nearest ag college was 45 miles away at Dordt College,” Crow said. “So, there was a need for locally-trained students who sought to stay local. It’s really seen rapid growth.”

“We get into the pits and measure differences in soil horizons and textures,” said Koch, a native of nearby Pierson, Iowa, who was crowned king at the Plymouth County Fair in July. “Just within this one field we went from deep soil samples to samples of clay and sand. If you go a little west of here you can get into the Loess Hills, which is fascinating.”

Students were challenged to recommend tillage practices as well. Nelson remarked that this tract hasn’t been tilled since his family bought it and began farming it in 1995.

“It was a good learning experience,” said sophomore Angela Nyunt of South O’Brien, which earned first place in the FFA soils career development event. “When you get toward the Loess Hills area, it’s different to look at.”

Nyunt and Koch joined the others in finding the slope of each site, the thickness of the ‘A’ horizon, ‘B’ horizon and more.

“We talked about how we would farm it,” said Nyunt, who may one day consider a career in soil sciences; that is, if she doesn’t embark on a career as an eye surgeon.

Koch, who intends to study ag business and agronomy at South Dakota State University, found the sites easier to grade because of their no-till status. He was still thinking about the ways to grow crops on the parcel when we spoke Friday.

That’s the whole point, according to Crow.

“Understanding how to manage soil is critical to our industry,” said Crow, who finished in the top three individual spots in Iowa FFA soils judging as a prep. “Different soils on one farm will require different management needs. It’s critical we help them learn how this is done.”

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