crop scouting

Swift County 4-H crop scouting coach Bob Sowers shows how to identify insect damage on a corn plant.

BENSON, Minn. — Some Minnesota 4-H and FFA members tried something new this year: a crop scouting competition. Youth in four other states were already involved in competitive crop scouting and those teams inspired a group of University of Minnesota Extension educators — including Brian McNeil — to organize a pilot Minnesota youth crop scouting program.

In 2018, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association gave some money to the 4-H to develop some agronomy programs for youth. McNeil and a group of Extension educators in southwestern Minnesota used the money to develop educational start-up kits for such things as crop science, soil science and vegetable gardening. The idea, McNeil explained, was to create a pilot program for 4-H projects which youth in towns, and without access to land, could bring to county fairs.

“As I started doing this work I asked other states what they were and found out that there were four states doing a crop scouting event,” McNeil said. “I asked if Minnesota could connect into this and they welcomed us so we started planning this event.”

Nebraska, Indiana, Kentucky and Iowa are the four other states that are fielding crop scouting teams. McNeil went to the Iowa competition last year where about a dozen teams of crop scouts competed.

“We learned a lot from them on how to do the training and competition,” he said.

The idea was to establish teams of three youth from seventh grade to one year past high school graduation. The teams are led by an adult and are trained in five basic areas: the growth stages of corn and soybeans, weed identification, insect identification, sprayer nozzles and how they are used, and plant diseases. Each of those five basic areas are represented by a station during the competition. Corn and soybeans will be the crops that will be scouted.

“The youth will spend 15 to 20 minutes at each station and we’ll have an official at each station,” McNeil said. “They will be scored at each station and at the end the scores will be tallied and we’ll get our top teams. Those two teams will go to the national competition in Iowa.”

With the help of other Extension educators in the region, McNeil was able to recruit five scouting teams last spring. The teams are in Mower, Big Stone, Swift, Lyon and Yellow Medicine counties. The Yellow Medicine County team is made up of FFA club members.

“We wanted to offer this to FFA youth as well as 4-H youth,” McNeil said. “That’s what they do in Iowa.”

The Swift County team is coached by 4-H and FFA alumnus Bob Sowers. Sowers is a certified crop advisor and an agronomist for Stony Ridge Foods. Stony Ridge contracts with farmers to grow Black Turtle and Navy Beans.

“When I saw that the University of Minnesota Extension wanted to train 4-H youth in crop scouting, I thought that fell in my field of expertise and area of interest,” Sowers said. “I thought yes, I can do that.”

In addition to being interested in crop scouting, Sowers points out how important 4-H and FFA were to him when he was young.

“Those are two great organizations and coaching this team is a little bit of a payback for my positive experiences as a youth,” he said.

Sowers is training a team of three young people who all have farm backgrounds; but are of various ages and levels of agronomic experience. University of Minnesota Extension provided an extensive list of resources for training as a crop scout and Sowers supplemented that with material he has located over the years. 

By July, the Swift County team was largely done with “book learning” and was out in the field. 

“We’re not just looking for problems,” Sowers said. “We’re looking at conditions in the field and rating it and we’re looking at the condition of the crop. We’re looking for insect pests, diseases, and weed crops that may still be there. We’re trying to see and identify whatever is in the field that shouldn’t be there and then figure out what it is and what are some solutions to take care of it.”

Sowers points out that the youth scouts don’t have to memorize each disease and condition. At the competition, similar to real life, they will be able to take their resources into the field with them. Teaching them understanding of the crop, and sharp observational skills, is what’s at the heart of coaching.

“I tell the kids we’re looking for things out of place,” Sowers said.

Coach Sowers is also showing the Swift County team that working together makes them more effective.

“Finding what’s out of place and identifying it is done as a team,” he said. “Each youth brings a certain strength to the team and they’ll make decisions as a team.”

Team work will also be required at each of the competition’s stations when the teams make their presentations to the officials at those stations, according to McNeil.

The 2019 Minnesota Crop Scouting competition was held in fields near Benson on July 29. The two top teams will compete at the national competition in Iowa on Aug. 26. All of the Minnesota teams will be invited to a special crop scouting event at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 28.

Both McNeil and Sowers are hoping to use the State Fair event to increase interest and participation in youth crop scouting in 2020.