Two Crow Wing County 4-H teams will compete in a new program - the first of its kind in the country - that aims to get youth excited about agriculture.

A total of 12 teams from across the state will compete in the Science of Agriculture Response Challenge (SOAR) June 17-19 at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul campus. Crow Wing County is the only county in the northeast region to have a team qualify, said Allison Sandve, public relations manager of the University of Minnesota Extension office.

"We are very proud to have two teams going on to compete," said Sandve. "It's pretty amazing. It speaks to the mentorship and the leadership. ... I'm impressed with what the teams have developed."

The program was started after a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey showed the U.S. faces a shortage of agriculture scientists, the University of Minnesota Extension Office reports. The survey found a decline in students pursuing agricultural sciences and a decrease in the number of universities teaching the subjects, resulting in almost two decades of reducing public investment in agricultural research and education.

Agriculture relies on the use of technology and science. The use of precision agriculture, robotic milking on dairy farms, and biocontrol of pests are all based on science, engineering and technology. However, statistics show children lose interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics as early as third grade. In addition, studies have shown that 80 percent of kids in K-12 learn outside the formal classroom.

The SOAR Challenge's mission is to get youth excited about agriculture and gives youth hands-on experience, said Sandve.

The two Crow Wing County teams qualifying are the DinoSOARS and Team Got Guts. The DinoSOARS team consists of Lydia Halbach, Rachel Danielson and Zach Struffert, who all belong to the Baxter Sandpipers 4-H Club, and Kirsten Schroer, who belongs to the Daggett Brook 4-H Club. The team is coached by volunteer Karen Danielson and mentored by community volunteer Darren Mayers from Crow Wing County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The Team Got Guts consists of Arica Caughey, Madeline Hinrichs, Emelia Hinrichs and Simon Nelson, who belong to the Daggett Brook 4-H Club. Team Got Guts is coached by Jim Chamberlain, community expert and volunteer from Happy Dancing Turtle in Pine River.

The youths, with guidance from their coaches and mentors, have been working together since December learning about the eight steps in the engineering process, and their individual topics. The DinoSOARs are studying native plants versus conventional grass sod and their contributions to water buffers, primarily in agricultural settings. The Got Guts team is looking at how methane production from chicken by-products can be utilized in energy consumption for a local chicken processor.

"Our topic is methane digesters," said Chamberlin of the Got Guts team. "A local poultry processor currently composts offal and we are looking at how to utilize the methane as an energy source. This project combines both review of existing technology on methane digesters as well as hands on experimentation."

Chamberlin said the team's research includes: How much methane comes from poultry offal; options to capture and utilize the methane; total production of energy possible from the processing facility; and economic viability of the system. Chamberlin said from this information the team will provide recommendations to the processor on system design, energy utilization, and economic considerations including upfront investment, return on investment, and long-term profitability. The team also will research possible funding sources including grant funds and other renewable energy incentives.

Danielson of the DinoSOARS team said, "In order to protect our waterways we decided to study the effects of native plants and turf grasses in a buffer zone. We hypothesize that native plants absorb more phosphorus than turf grasses when planted in a buffer. To test this hypothesis we planted various types of plants into eight bins, with two bins of each kind of plant. Our first bins contain a common turf grass seed. Our second bins contain native pollinators. The third set of bins contains native grasses. The fourth set of bins contains a mixture of the native pollinators and native grasses. The plants are elevated so the water can drain out of the soil for testing. We have decided to fertilize four of the bins with livestock manure and the other four with lawn fertilizer. We are planning on simulating a rain storm by dissolving the fertilizer in water and sprinkling it on the plants. We will measure the amount of nutrients in the water before and after pouring the water in the bins."

Day one of the challenge is dedicated to presenting each team's research. Day two will focus on career exploration, industry tours and the award ceremony. The first place team will win $1,000 per member for their post-secondary education. The second place team members will each win $750. The third place team members will each win $500.

Courtney Johnson, 4-H program coordinator in the county, said both teams will present to the Crow Wing County 4-H Livestock Project Development Committee at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds, weather pending. Rain site will be at the Land Services Building.

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at jennifer.stockinger@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5851. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl.