Maryland alumnus places second in International Soil Judging Competition

Witkowski getting his hands dirty in South Korea at the competition.

July 21, 2014

Tyler Witkowski didn’t expect to be there. The 2013 alumnus said he came to this university to be a mechanical engineer and couldn’t have seen himself in South Korea, let alone neck-deep in soil pits. But Witkowski ended up earning the second-highest individual score at the first International Soil Judging Competition, held June 5 to 7 in Jeju, South Korea.

The soil-judging competition debuted at the 20th session of the World Congress of Soil Science,  an international research conference. The WCSS competition will be held every four years and is hosted by the International Union of Soil Sciences along with the Korean Society of Soil Science and Fertilizer. Thirteen teams, representing eight countries, competed. The top eight individual performers at the National Collegiate Soil Judging Competition held at Delaware Valley College in April were chosen to make up the USA-A and USA-B teams. Witkowski competed on the USA-B team. He led his team to first place and the competition’s inaugural gold medal over the USA-A Team. 

The competition requires participants to analyze a 4- to 5-foot deep soil pit to make accurate descriptions. These descriptions will then be used to help produce a soil map for the specific country. “These [descriptions] evaluate the water soil can hold, the types of crops it’s suited for, whether roads can be built on it,” said Chris Baxter, a USA-B team coach and a University of Wisconsin-Platteville soil and crop science professor. “The contest asks students to perform soil descriptions using limited tools and the sense of sight and touch.”

It wasn’t cheap getting to South Korea. The Soil Society of America provided $3,000 per person for the USA-A team and $750 per person for the USA-B team. Witkowski’s remaining costs were covered by the agriculture and natural resources college, the university’s Environmental Science and Technology program and contributions from individuals and organizations, said Martin Rabenhorst, soil coach for the U.S. teams.

Soil judging instruction is available to undergraduates in this university’s Environmental Science and Technology program. Witkowski said he took immediate roots in the program because he felt uncomfortable in a larger major such as mechanical engineering. “It felt like more of a family situation,” Witkowski said. “Everyone cared about each other.”

The professors cared too, he said. Rabenhorst has been alternating coaching the U.S. teams with university professor Brian Needelman since 1983. “Dr. Rabenhorst and Dr. Needelman … taking me out and explaining soils and showing how things form,” Witkowski said. “They took us out on Saturdays; they didn’t need to do that. Rabenhorst, who received a master’s in soil genesis from this university in 1978, was involved with soil judging while he was a student at this university. 

The soil judging Terrapins took third overall at this year’s collegiate competition to follow last year’s first-place finish. Although he said he “was never a farm kid,” Witkowski is working as a soil conservationist and is interested in becoming a soil scientist. Baxter said the competition’s increased recognition will help garner international attention for soil science and conservation. “In the U.S., we’ve been competing for more than 50 years,” Baxter said. “It’s just now catching on in other countries. That made it interesting to the World Congress, which has helped raise awareness.”