ENST Alumnus Named Second Best Soil Judger in the World

Tyler Witkowski, environmental science and technology alumnus, shines on team USA at the first International Soil Judging Competition.

Team USA: L to R: Tyler Witkowski, U of MD (2nd place); Caitlin Hodges, Bianca Peixoto, John Galbraith (Coach), Emily Salkind, Brian Maule, Nancy Kammerer, Julia Gillespie, Kyle Weber, Chris Baxter (Coach).

Image Credit: Max Grossfeld, Kintija Eigmina-Chemali

June 19, 2014

When it comes to judging soil, environmental science and technology alumnus Tyler Witkowski can compete with anyone in the world. The December 2013 graduate proved his prowess by earning second place at the first International Soil Judging Competition held June 5-7 in Jeju, Korea.

At the competition, hosted by the International Union of Soil Sciences and the Korean Society of Soil Science and Fertilizer, Witkowski was a member of the USA team -- one of 13 teams representing eight different countries.

The USA team, totaling eight members, was divided into two teams of four, Witkowski contributing to team USA-B, the grand prize winner of the competition. Members of both USA teams are the top ranking soil judgers in the nation, as was determined by their achievements at the US National Soils Contest held in Eastern Pennsylvania in April. Witkowski was the only former Terp to earn a spot on the USA team.

“Although there has been a lot of talk about the win, soil judging is mainly about field experience and education, and especially in this kind of a setting, also about getting to know new people from different cultures,” said Dr. Martin Rabenhorst, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology and coach of the UMD Soil Judging team.  

Rabenhorst went on, “In general, soil judging helps students to develop great field skills that literally cannot be learned any other way…[especially] not in the classroom. This chance for these students to go to Korea was just a very special opportunity.”

Participants were asked to examine a four to five foot deep exposed soil pit, tasked with identifying the major soil horizons (layers), describing the characteristics of each horizon, classifying the soil according to either the US Soil Taxonomy system or the International World Reference Base system, and evaluating the ability of the soil for various uses.

“Most of the soils on Jeju Island are Andisols formed from volcanic geological materials (mostly ash and ejecta),” Rabenhorst said. “For most of the US students, and probably for many of the other students also, that would have been entirely new.”

Commenting on such new experiences, Witkowski said, “The most astonishing feature was how the clay felt when you textured the soil. Many of my teammates, including myself, were thrown for a loop trying to accurately texture these soils.”

Furthermore, students were specifically asked about suitability of the soil for tangerine production, a major crop for the region said to be some of the best in the world. The Jeju soil allows for significant water infiltration and permeability, creating thin tangerine rinds and high sugar content.

“Those students who had the opportunity to study the soils on Jeju Island had a tremendous and unique experience,” Rabenhorst said. “For Tyler, [the competition] will have a special significance because he can now say that he is the 2nd best soil judger in the world…he has the award to prove it!”

Witkowski, whom Rabenhorst calls a “serious student” who also knows how to “take it easy and have fun,” is currently employed as a resource conservationist with the Cecil Soil Conservation District and plans on either returning to school to get his Ph.D. or becoming a soil scientist with the USDA National Resources Conservation Service.

“Coming to Korea and meeting soil science students who get excited about soil judging was a fantastic opportunity,” Witkowski said. “Hopefully this will create a long-lasting soil judging tradition at the World Congress of Soil Science.”

(Max Grossfeld and Kintija Eigmina-Chemali contributed to this article)