Terp Takes Silver in 1st International Soil Judging Competition

Tyler Witkowski, ENST alumnus, took second place individually while competing against students from around the world.

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).

June 11, 2014

Tyler Witkowski, environmental science and technology alumnus, is officially the second best soil judger in the world. He took second place individually in the first ever International Soil Judging Competition. Thirteen teams from eight countries competed in the contest, which took place from June 5-7, in Jeju, Korea. Witkowski helped team USA-B win the grand prize and the group portion of the judging as well.

When the judges gave Witkowski his award, he did not realize the implications at first.  However, when he got back to his seat and his newfound friends started asking about it, he was speechless. “Words couldn't express my emotion at that point. I could not speak,” he said. “To be able to call myself the second best soil judger in the world was new and even hard to think about.”

Even better than the accolades, however, was the experience of meeting people Witkowski never would have otherwise. “Coming to Korea and meeting soil science students who get excited about soil judging was a fantastic opportunity,” the December 2013 graduate said. “Hopefully this will create a long lasting soil judging tradition at the World Congress of Soil Science.”

Though it was fun working with seven new teammates, it was a new challenge for Witkowski. When Witkowski works with the Soil Judging Terps, he knows each of his teammates strengths and weaknesses. In the ISJC, he had to learn his teammates personalities and work tendencies on the fly. “After listening to stories from Emily Salkind (Virginia Tech) and Kyle Weber (University of Wisconsin-Platteville) about their struggles with their team group judging in nationals, it really hit home to me that the Terps have a very special ability to work as one team,” noted Witkowski.

Soil judging allows students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to the real world. They break down the characteristics of soil layers, technically called horizons, to test for properties related to the geological history and potential for agricultural use. Jeju Island provided an excellent change of pace from the soil the American teams are used to seeing. “The most astonishing feature was how the clay felt when you textured the soil,” noticed Witkowski. “Many of my teammates, including myself, were thrown for a loop trying to accurately texture these soils.”

Four hundred small volcanic cones surround Hallasan, a dormant volcanic cone at the center of the island, which had major eruptions about 25,000 years ago. Because of this, the soils have formed in a mix of volcanic ash and ejecta. This combination allows for high water infiltration and permeability, perfect for growing tangerines. The thin rinds and high sugar contents of the tangerines make the Jeju fruits some of the best in the world.

Back home, Witkowski’s team could not be prouder of what he’s been able to accomplish on an international level. “This not only is a great honor for Tyler, but this is also a proud day for our Department, our College, and for the University of Maryland,” said Dr. Martin Rabenhorst, Soil Judging Terps’ head coach. ENST Chair Dr. William Bowerman also congratulated Tyler on his achievement. “We are overjoyed to hear that Tyler is among the best soil judgers in the world. Here at ENST, this is our World Cup, and for him take silver is an incredible honor.”

Witkowski is currently employed as a Resource Conservationist with the Cecil Soil Conservation District.  He says that he either plans to become a soil scientist, possibly with the USDA-NRCS, or to return to school to earn a Ph.D. Witkowski hopes the new international competition will bring soil judging to a new level and will continue to connect people around the world. “Cherish the moments with both the soils and the people and it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life,” he concluded.