PLYMOUTH -- Most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about dirt.
But more than 100 high school students from FFA clubs around Eastern Washington spent Wednesday analyzing it, touching it and talking about it.
Playing soil conservationists for the day, the students had to measure soil composition, texture and vulnerability to wind and water erosion.
They then had to give recommendations about growing a particular crop as part of the Washington State FFA Land Judging Career and Development Event at a farm in Plymouth.
It's a typical gig for a soil conservationist, said organizer Erin Hightower, an agricultural resource technician at Benton Conservation District, which sponsored the competition for the first time with the Benton County Cattlemen's Association and Prosser Record-Bulletin.
It's that real-world experience that is so valuable, said Jodi Monroe, executive director of Washington State FFA Association.
"Often, a teacher's teaching in the classroom, but the students don't get a chance to apply it," she said. "A lot of these kids can go straight into the work force with the skills they learned in FFA."
For Maggie Elliot, 18, the skills she developed are only rooted in agriculture.
The high school senior is president of the Prosser High School FFA chapter and is interested in becoming a lobbyist for agribusiness. She joined FFA as a freshman for the public speaking and leadership experience.
"It pushes you outside of your comfort zone," she said. "You can be nervous, but in the end it makes you stronger."
And while she plans on wearing suits instead of jeans and boots, she enjoyed last year's competition enough to sign up this year.
"It's more about precision, attention to detail, keeping your head level and dealing with stress," she said.
It also involved walking into a ditch to measure soil depths and pouring water onto a palmful of dirt to determine its texture.
Stewart Padelford, executive director of Washington FFA Foundation, said that the lessons the students are learning about soil and water conservation is important, not just for the agricultural industry, but for a world that needs to figure out how to feed an ever-growing population.
"It has much wider implications," he said.
Padelford, who was a teacher and FFA adviser at Prosser High School from 1985 to 2007, pointed to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but also noted technological advances in recent decades that have improved the quality of life in the Mid-Columbia.
Dust storms and agricultural runoff were common in the 1970s before more efficient irrigation techniques and smarter crop rotations helped limit erosion, he said.
Now, "you could walk 100 feet and (the amount of watering) could be different," said Travis DeVore, a teacher and FFA adviser at Prosser High, where a new agricultural science program is blending Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, with FFA.
"The predominant jobs in the industry are in research, technology and marketing -- not food production," said DeVore.
Lind-Ritzville took top honors among the 22 teams Wednesday and will compete at nationals in May in Oklahoma City. Prosser High finished ninth.
-- Kai-Huei Yau: 585-7205; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kaieeieei