NORFOLK, NE – From outward appearances, it’s classes as scheduled for faculty and the 350 agricultural students at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. However, a closer look reveals a flurry of activity behind the scenes as the College and its Agriculture Department ready hundreds of details in preparation for a major agricultural competition.
As of late March, 650 students, representing 38 two and four-year institutions, were registered for the 2018 North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) Judging Conference to be conducted from Wednesday, April 18, through Saturday, April 21.
“It’s a huge undertaking, but we’ve (Northeast) been involved in competing at NACTA (since 2000), and it’s our turn to host,” said Mike Roeber, Northeast livestock judging coach and animal science instructor. “We (Northeast) need to put in the time and work to get that accomplished.”
Throughout the conference, he said, “We’ll be showcasing the campus and its facilities and the Norfolk community.”
Roeber said the registered schools hail from 17 states with a soils and crops judging team traveling from Australia.
The list includes Purdue University, Penn State, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, Texas A & M, Casper Community College and Murray State University (the host site for the 2019 NACTA conference).
Northeast President Dr. Michael Chipps said, “It’s an exciting opportunity for Northeast Community College to host … this great exposition, if you will.” The event, he said, will especially showcase the College’s agricultural presence that dates to 1973.
Roeber said Northeast hosted the 2005 NACTA Judging Conference, with three faculty still on staff who were involved in that event.
He is currently finishing his third year as president of the NACTA Coaches Association. His duties include scheduling the host judging conference schools, verifying eligibility of participating schools with the NACTA organization headquarters, and providing information to the educational branch of the NACTA organization.
NACTA, a professional society, focuses on the scholarship of teaching and learning agriculture and related disciplines at the postsecondary level, according to its website. Members are two-and four-year public and private colleges and universities.
This year’s 13 contests will primarily be conducted on campus and at Northeast’s Chuck M. Pohlman Agriculture Complex, along with some off-campus judging sites as well, Roeber said.
The schedule includes:
April 19 – dairy judging, horticultural, precision agriculture, agribusiness and agricultural knowledge bowl (preliminaries) contests;
April 20 – livestock judging, soils, agricultural mechanics, computer applications and ag knowledge (finals) contests; and
April 21 – livestock management, crops, agricultural communications/agricultural sales and equine judging contests. The 2018 conference concludes with an awards banquet that night at the DeVent Center.
Roeber said all of the College’s agriculture faculty and staff members, as well as a number of ag students, will be involved in various aspects of the conference. Several of the College’s ag graduates also volunteered to assist, some of whom were involved in past NACTA competitions as students, he added.
Northeast Community College officially decided to host the 2018 NACTA Judging Conference four years ago, Roeber said, with preparations underway since 2015.
The checklist includes:
. Compiling the wording and ordering of 510 plaques, trophies and banners for the top individuals and teams;
. Securing the animals (ewes, beef cattle, and market hogs, lambs and goats) for the 12 livestock judging classes, as well as the dairy cattle and equine judging contests;
. Digging more than one dozen six-foot-deep practice and contest holes for the soils contest; and
. Lining up the official judges for each of the 13 contests.
Bernie Thyen, an agronomy instructor at Northeast, is engaged in a major task: growing more than 120 different species of plants for the crops contest. Thyen, who is coordinating this year’s contest, said he began collecting seeds for the contest two years ago.
He said many seeds were collected from plants growing in the area, some gleaned from ditches, fields and even flower pots. Some rare seeds – such as castor, sesame and tobacco — were ordered. A corn plant planted last December 3 now towers 10 feet.
Grow lights, operational from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, simulate mid-summer growing conditions and maintain the plants’ normal growing state, he said. Some plants have to be “tricked” so they are headed out or flowering at the time of the contest.
“Can you imagine the challenge to keep plants growing inside this winter?” Thyen asked, noting outside temperatures as low as a minus 28.
Thyen said he has spent “hundreds and hundreds of hours” tending to the more than 300 potted plants under cultivation in a College greenhouse.
The crops judging contest is designed to prepare students for agronomic careers. The two-year college and university contestants vie individually, side by side.
An hour is devoted to each of the sections: math practical, agronomic exam, laboratory practical, and plant and seed identification. The latter requires identification of 75 crop and weed plants and their seeds with more than 150 possible species on the exam.
At the end of this year’s crops contest, Thyen said he wants the contestants to say: “Wow! He had good plants, and it was tough.”
Sarah Sellin, an agronomy and animal science instructor at Northeast, is in charge of the soils competition. The contest, she said, is “very science based” with focuses on such areas as soil slope, type, texture, color, structure and grade.
“We want to find unique soil types that can showcase Nebraska soils,” Sellin said.
Twelve practice pits, as well as four contest pits, will be dug at undisclosed sites shortly before the conference. During the contest, a student will spend an hour each at the four pits, including 10 minutes in the pit gleaning specific information.
Sellin also is coordinating the equine contest and securing the horses for the halter, performance and body conformation classes. Some area 4-H members will be involved as horse owners and riders/handlers, she said.
Over the years, Northeast has annually fielded several first-place NACTA conference teams, Roeber said.
As the host school this year, Northeast students may compete in some contests but will not be in contention for any awards. The Northeast students will mostly be assisting the faculty and staff in conducting the 13 contests.
Northeast is no stranger to the contest. In the past, Northeast Community College has claimed approximately 30 first place place national team and individual finishes at NACTA since 2015 alone.
Traci Jeffrey, executive director of the Norfolk Area Visitors Bureau, said Northeast’s hosting of the NACTA conference is “a great opportunity to showcase Norfolk and Northeast Nebraska, as well as Northeast Community College.”
Her conference involvements, she said, include lining up blocks of hotel rooms and tours for the NACTA conference attendees. Several major Norfolk industries and an area feedlot and dairy operation are offering tours April 19-21.
Jeffrey said, “We want to make sure our visitors have a great experience while here with the potential that they’d come back.” In addition, she said, there could be possible job opportunities for the students.
There will be an estimated total economic impact of over $80,000 to the Norfolk area from the NACTA conference in terms of meals, lodging, fuel and shopping, she said. It is estimated that a visitor spends an estimated $108 per day if lodging is included.
Roeber said some of the contestants will arrive several days prior to their contest areas to practice and prepare for the contests.
Corinne Morris, dean of agriculture, math and science at Northeast, said hosting the 2018 NACTA event “could not happen without Mike Roeber’s vision and knowledge of every little detail of what makes the contest successful. He works day and night. Under Mike’s leadership, all of the ag faculty are contributing time, dedication and expertise.”