The K-State Crops Team consistently wins national titles. How do they do it?

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The 2018 K-State Crops Team poses with its numerous awards. From left to right: assistant coach Keren Duerksen, head coach Kevin Donnelly, junior Wes Jennings, sophomore Jayden Meyer, senior Nathaniel Dick, sophomore Blake Kirchhoff, junior Madison Tunnell, junior Noah Winans, assistant coach Kaylin Fink and sophomore Luke Ryan. (Courtesy photo by Kevin Donnelly)

In the spring, curious students have the opportunity to take a plant and seed identification class through the Department of Agronomy. It might not sound like much, but for many students, this is the first step in joining the Kansas State University Collegiate Crops Team.

For Jayden Meyer, sophomore in agricultural economics, and Luke Ryan, sophomore in agronomy, this class was an opportunity to hone their skills.

Crops Team head coach Kevin Donnelly, professor of agronomy, said many students use this class to either learn the skills necessary to be a part of the crops judging team or improve on their existing skill set.

Meyer and Ryan, along with Westley “Wes” Jennings, junior in agronomy, were the three-man team that won the National Collegiate Crops Contest title in 2018.

To do so, K-State had to win both the Kansas City American Royal Collegiate Crops Contest on Nov. 13 and the Chicago Collegiate Crops Contest on Nov. 17.

In both contests, the K-State team took first place in all three phases of the contest: plant and seed identification, seed analysis and grain grading.

In a Crops Team contest, participants are required to identify 200 plant or seed samples of crops and weeds, grade eight different samples of grain according to Federal Grain Inspection Service standards and analyze 10 seed samples to determine what contaminants they contain.

Keren Duerksen, Crops Team assistant coach and graduate student in agronomy, said seed analysis is like playing “Where’s Waldo” with tiny seeds.

“You have a base sample of a certain crop,” Duerksen said. “There will be weed seeds and seeds from other crops, and you just try to figure out what’s in there.”

Duerksen said the grain grading segment of the contests is as close to the standard used by federal grain inspectors as they can possibly recreate in a contest setting. The Federal Grain Inspection standards are used for all crops, but the scale used can vary from one to four or one to five, depending on the crop.

Duerksen herself participated in the K-State Crops Team before coaching — one year as an alternate and one year participating in competitions, she said. She has been the assistant coach ever since.

Ryan said hours of practice go into preparing for competitions. Once a week, the whole team meets in the crop science lab to practice together. Throughout the week, most members practice individually.

“A lot of work goes into being the best you can be,” Meyer said.

Donnelly said only three students are officially on the team, but K-State typically has several alternates. This year, there were four alternates.

“No place on the team is set in stone,” Duerksen said. “I think it motivates people to work harder. They want to keep their spot on the team. The alternates could come up at any time. If people feel the pressure to work harder, they will.”

Another motivator for students on the team is the fact that scholarships are awarded to top placers in national crop judging competitions.

For its exemplary performance, K-State received a team scholarship award from contest sponsors at the Kansas City competition, and CME Group provided individual scholarships to the top five competitors at Chicago.

K-State Crops Team members will also receive a stipend from the American Society of Agronomy Reinvest Program to attend the Australia Universities Crops Competition in the fall of 2019.

Normally, Donnelly said he only brings three students to Australia, but he said he may bring alternates this fall.

The Australian crop judging competition will be in September, before the regional and national competitions in the United States.

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I’m Bailey Britton, a freshman from Colby, KS. I am double majoring in print journalism and secondary education with a focus in English and journalism. This semester I am of the assistant news editors. Writing and reading have always been passions of mine. When I have free time, I like to play tennis and be active or curl up with a good book and a cup of coffee.