MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – To the casual observer, it may be kids in a field digging, smashing mud between their fingers and taking quick notes about a dirt sample, but land judging and home site evaluation means more to everyone involved. It develops science and reasoning skills. It’s an opportunity to pursue higher education and a career. But it’s also a legacy that continues to deepen for youths, coaches and faculty who invest in it through the West Virginia University Extension Service 4-H programs.
This year, the Barbour County 4-H team won the national land judging championship while their 4-H peers from Clay County placed third in the nation. One of those Barbour County 4-H’ers won the highest individual honors. This comes on the heels of the Monroe County 4-H’ers that claimed the 2017 national championship, adding to the pedigree of recent West Virginia 4-H teams.
But, digging deeper, it doesn’t stop there. Since 1980, West Virginia 4-H teams have taken 22 national championships. What is it about the program that draws generations of 4-H’ers? And, what makes West Virginia a place where soil science is at the forefront of a teenager’s mind?
The simplest answer comes from Jeff Skousen, Ph.D., who is the WVU Extension Service land reclamation specialist and is also a professor of soil science at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
“We’re a rural state and many people have some connection to the land, agriculture and forests, and the beauty of the environment around us,” he explained. “The program teaches practical soil lessons that tie in to land use and productivity — knowing just a few simple things about soil can help students predict its capability for growing crops and trees.”
Skousen has overseen the program since 1986, and in addition to coordinating the state-level qualifying competitions, travels to Oklahoma for the yearly national competition to help the 4-H’ers who qualify prepare by working with farmers and ranchers in the area.
The West Virginia 4-H teams that attend the national contest judge roughly 20 different sites and study hard for a week before the actual event. It’s something that Skousen looks forward to yearly.
“I love this program. During the week-long preparation the students get to know me, their coaches and teammates quite well,” he said. “Because of this experience, many students often come to WVU and major in agronomy and soil science and are often in my soil classes together. They have each other to lean on during their studies, and we keep in contact through their college education.”
Brian Wickline, WVU Extension Service agent in Monroe County and coach of the 2017 national championship team from his county, knows the program well since he got involved in coaching in 1996 and also participated in the contests during his youth. He echoed Skousen’s sentiment.
“At the heart of it, it’s really practical knowledge that’s even useful to have as a homeowner — things such as soil permeability and erosion control are really useful, everyday lessons to know,” he said. “But, it’s also a resume builder for the kids, and there’s opportunity for scholarships to get to college — even if they don’t stay in an agriculture-related major, it opens doors.”
Wickline helped coach this year’s Barbour County 4-H team at the national competition because of the sudden passing of Roger Nestor, a retired WVU Extension agriculture and natural resources agent from Barbour County who was the team’s main coach and long-time trainer of Barbour County 4-H’ers.
“Roger was legendary — one of the most successful and respected coaches in the country when it came to soil judging competitions,” he said. “He called me and asked if I could travel with the team and help them at nationals in his place. It was a privilege. I really respected Roger and he was a mentor not only to me, but also generations of 4-H’ers who got to learn from him.”
Luke Farnsworth was part of this year’s Barbour County 4-H team and was the previously mentioned 4-H’er that took the highest individual honors by finishing first in the nation in land judging. He recounted the time in Oklahoma at the contest and the lessons that Nestor passed on to this year’s team before he passed.
“Mr. Roger [Nestor] knew everyone’s potential and he encouraged you even when you made mistakes — he explained and helped you understand where you went wrong so you could get it right in the future,” he said.
Farnsworth also noted how the team reacted once they arrived to the competition.
“We understood a lot of previous teams were nervous when they got to Oklahoma because they had a reputation to live up to,” he said. “I can’t really explain it, but we weren’t. We didn’t expect to do well because of Mr. Roger’s passing. So, we came together as a team and decided to just do our best and remember all those people who supported us back home. Like one of my teammates said, we truly became family — we got on each other’s nerves sometimes, but we all enjoyed what we were doing and worked well together.”
Farnsworth noted that he really enjoyed the experience and wanted to help coach in the future to continue the tradition of success.
The team was also made up of Gage Poling, Olivia Frye and Marissa Schiefelbein, and they were additionally coached by Tyler Baldwin — an alum of Barbour County 4-H with a national soil judging championship of his own. Jody Carpenter and Michelle Duckworth who were also on Nestor’s teams helped prepare the team as well.
For more than a century, 4-H has focused on agricultural science, electricity, mechanics, entrepreneurship and natural sciences. Today, 4-H out-of-school opportunities also exist in subjects like rocketry, robotics, biofuels, renewable energy and computer science.
To learn more about new opportunities in the 4-H program, visit www.extension.wvu.edu, or contact your local office of the WVU Extension Service. Keep up with the latest in WVU Extension news on Facebook and Twitter by following @WVUExtension.