Blake Kirchhoff, junior in agronomy from Hardy, Nebraska, studies seeds ahead of a competition. Kirchhoff took individual top honors at the Chicago and Kansas City competitions last fall. | Download this photo.
Students get head start on career skills as part of national championship crops team
Kansas State University is home to 17 national championship teams in 21 years
April 1, 2020
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Think of dynasties and we might think of sports teams like the Bulls or the Patriots, but for more than 20 years in the agricultural world, a university team of students has reigned supreme far more than any others.
Kansas State University’s crops judging team has been national champions 17 of the past 21 years, giving those students a jump on any number of career choices in crop and food production when they graduate.
As a team, the students practice at least twice a week – more often as their fall competitions draw near, said Kevin Donnelly, K-State agronomy professor and crops team coach. Many of them spend extra time on their own studying seed and plant identification, seed analysis and the proper ways to grade grain into categories.
“They must be dedicated students who are willing to put forth the study time necessary to really learn the content thoroughly,” Donnelly said. “Successful winning scores are 95% or better. There is also a skills development component in carefully picking through the grain grading and seed analysis samples, so they need to have patience and persistence, and the willingness to practice picking through many samples to develop their skills.”
To prepare for the competitions, the students learn how to identify about 325 plants and seeds, plus do a simulation of a USDA Federal Grain Inspection System inspection in one and one-half hours.
“It’s grueling, but if you prepare well, you’re usually rewarded,” Donnelly said.
Each October, the team competes in a regional contest in Iowa, Oklahoma or Kansas, and then spends a week in November competing in national contests in Kansas City and Chicago.
The team has also made five trips to Australia in the past nine years to compete in the Australian Crops Competition, often funded in part by their high placement in U.S. contests.
Donnelly was the crops judging coach at Oklahoma State University for 13 years before coming to K-State. He has coached the K-State team since 2008.
He said the skills the students develop that are most transferable to careers are team members’ expertise in plant and seed identification.
“When they enter jobs as agronomists, whether as crop consultants, seed company reps, chemical company reps, extension agents, (or other careers), plant and seed identification is a valued skill, and they will be far above their peers and most likely their supervisors from the first day on the job.”
Leavenworth County native Kelly (Yunghans) Marshall believes she got a running start on her career because of what she learned as a team member from 2008 to 2010, in addition to her classes and working part time in a research lab in the agronomy department.
“When I came to KSU, joining the crops team was not on my radar,” said Marshall, adding that Donnelly encouraged her to give it a try. She graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in agronomy.
She fondly described walking down the streets of Chicago looking for the famous Billy Goat Tavern “to get one of Dr. D’s favorite hamburgers. We were often challenged to get out of our comfort zone, food-wise, while traveling with Dr. D and his rule of ‘no chain restaurants or fast food’ when you’re visiting a new city has stuck with me for life.”
“In addition to the skills we were tested on in competition, it also helped me understand time management and prioritization, self-accountability, how to navigate a team atmosphere and help the team succeed as a whole, not just myself,” she said. “I feel overall, the crops team gave me a competitive edge over some of my peers when entering the workforce by providing me with additional skills and an internal drive to succeed that I may not have had if I hadn’t joined.”
Marshall is now an area seed manager with Nutrien Ag Solutions, covering western Missouri and eastern Kansas.
“I would say moving forward as a senior going to grad school, time management is everything,” said Noah Wynans, a senior agonomy major from Tekonsha, Michigan who was on the most recent (2019) national championship team. He said the team spends five to six hours a week in the lab preparing for competitions.
Nate Dick, senior in agronomy from Inman, Kansas, who was also on the most recent team, said he plans to go into crop consulting when he graduates in May, so learning how to identify plants for the crops team will be helpful when he transitions into a career. He also appreciated the opportunity to travel and become acquainted with students from other schools.
Madison Tunnell, a junior in agronomy from Olathe, Kansas, said the hours spent practicing with the team represented “a learning curve” she would never forget. Her favorite part, she said, was traveling to competitions which allowed her to strengthen ties with her teammates and make connections with students from other schools, as well as industry representatives.
Team members learn seed analysis, which provides an understanding of the importance of good quality seed for planting, plus learning about grain grading provides them with an understanding of the standards that support the U.S. grain marketing system.
“Grain in the U.S. is marketed on the basis of U.S. No. 2 grade,” Donnelly explained. “Most will not become grain inspectors, but may interact with them if they work in any career involving grain marketing, including a local coop. If (students) should work in the seed industry directly, then seed analysis will be more directly applicable.”
For those students who return to their own farming operation, they will use their weed identification skills, Donnelly said, and through learning how to properly grade grain and analyze seed, will have an appreciation for the importance of clean, high quality grain for the market.
Donnelly said he enjoys his “day job” teaching as an agronomy professor, but particularly enjoys his work outside the classroom with the team: “It is a great way for me to get to know some of our best and brightest students very well. I enjoy challenging students to push themselves further than they might initially think possible”
“The travel that we do provides students with opportunities to see cultural, scenic and agricultural sites that enhance their educational experience, and I enjoy those as well,” he said. “I would like to think that it has helped attract at least some students to K-State and to major in agronomy.”
Read more about the crops team and the K-State Department of Agronomy.