Fresno State senior Mark Castanon qualified for the International Soil Judging Contest in Rio de Janiero after finishing fifth overall among 88 individuals at the national competition. The Fresno State soil judging team placed 15th for its highest-ever team finish in the national competition.

The National Collegiate Soils Contest was hosted by the University of Tennessee at Martin on March 22 and 23. Representatives from 22 of the nation’s most respected collegiate agriculture programs were tested in their ability to identify, evaluate, classify and describe soil profiles in individual and team competitions.

Castanon will advance to the international contest from Aug. 7 to 11. The international competition is held every four years in conjunction with the World Congress of Soil Science meetings.

The Fresno native was the top finisher from a university in the western United States with his combined score of 680 points, only 24 points behind winner Kelli Roush of Iowa State who scored 704 points.

“Our team’s performance was a representation of all the hard work and dedication that we have put into making the soil judging team a reality at Fresno State,” Castanon said. “The team is thankful for all the support that we’ve received from our coaches, advisers and department staff to prepare us for these competitions with knowledge that will also be advantageous in our career paths.”

Fresno State’s seven-person team also included plant science seniors Aldo Garcia (Shafter), Nancy Valdez (Wasco) and Ricardo Rodriguez-Baeza (Mendota); junior Georgina Reyes Solorio (Livingston); and freshmen Sandra Gaylord (Ivanhoe) and Vanessa Ramos (Porterville).

To prepare for the event, the team members voluntarily met on Friday evenings and weekends to learn soil judging techniques and methodologies. The competition also exposed the plant science major students to southeastern soil conditions derived from wind-blown silt, coastal-plain sediment and fragipan layers.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville won the team contest with 2,566 points to edge Virginia Tech with 2,554 points.

The event was sponsored by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Soil Science Society of America.

Complete results are available at, and more event information is available at

The third-year team is coached by Michael Sowers and Dr. Phil Smith. Plant science faculty Dr. Dave Goorahoo and professor emeritus Dr. Bruce Roberts serve as team advisers.

“Mark and the team’s finish was a true testament to all their hard work since they were competing against the nation’s top students, many of whom are taking advanced soil science classes or are majoring in the field,” Sowers said. “The team’s future is bright with each year’s improvement and the addition of two freshmen who quickly understood the concepts without any formal classes.”

Sowers works as a Cascade Earth Sciences senior soil scientist and was a former soil judging team instructor for Delaware Valley College that won a national group soil judging title in 2011 and was the northeast regional champion in 2008 and 2010.

Smith is an area USDA-NRCS soil scientist and previously served as a consulting soil scientist in the private sector.

Under their guidance, the team finished 20th nationally in 2017 and 18th in 2016.

Castanon, Garcia, Valdez and Reyes Solorio competed at the national event both previous years, while Rodriguez-Baeza competed in 2017.

Fresno State’s highest individual honor in 2017 was Jagdeep Basi (Sanger) who placed 40th overall.

Plant science faculty, staff and students also support soil judging and evaluation by hosting high school FFA state contests each spring on its campus farm – an event that Reyes Solorio placed first in 2015 when she was a high school senior.