Jack County Soil and Water hosts contest for the record books
Blue skies and golden rangeland greeted 348 contestants as they stepped off their school buses for the 60th Annual Jack County Land and Range judging contest. Students participated in Range Ecology, Plant ID, Land Judging and Homesite Evaluation contests on the historic Richards Ranch, just outside of Jacksboro, Texas.
Hosted by the Jack Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), it is the longest running land and range judging contest in the state.
“Through wind, rain, sleet and snow - we’ve never missed a year,” Joe Ray Burkett, district technician with Jack SWCD, says proudly. “We had to postpone it a day one time, but we’ve never missed a year. Last year it was so cold with snow and ice the students with long hair had icicles in their hair, but that didn’t stop them, they just kept going.”
Burkett has been involved with the contest for 44 years both as an ag teacher in Petrolia and Jacksboro, and as a District employee. He brought teams of his FFA students to the contest for 36 years before retiring from teaching in 2008. Upon retirement he immediately went to work for the Jack SWCD as a district technician.
Burkett has been involved with the contest so long because he sees great value in the educational opportunities the contest provides.
“These kids that participate in these events develop critical thinking skills,” he says. “There isn’t always a clear-cut answer with these contests. Things change every day and you have to learn how to adapt. They can study in their area and be great, but when you go to new sites, the landscape and climate are different and they have to make decisions based on that. They develop higher thinking skills they can use for the rest of their life.”
Burkett credits the Jack SWCD board for understanding the importance of educating young people. They annually recruit over 20 volunteers to help run the event. Most of the volunteers have been coming 10 years..
Local rancher Anna Fitzgerald has served on the Jack SWCD board for the last 10 years. Her son, Jimmy, participated in the contest as an FFA student at Jacksboro with Burkett as his coach.
“This event falls in line with our board’s mission,” Fitzgerald says. “The future is our kids. If they learn about the environment now, they will become adults knowing how to take care of it.”
The Jack County contest isn’t just one of the longest running in the state, it is also one of the most popular and well run contests in the state. Teams from as far south as La Port and Sonora, as far west as Levelland and as far east as Queen City all make the trek to Jack County to participate in the contest because of the great experience it offers the kids.
Many of the teams that compete in this contest go on to participate in the National Land and Range Judging Contest held in Oklahoma City in May each year.
“Out of the last 60 years, 20 percent of the national champions have come from this contest,” says Jerry Henderson, Jack SWCD board chairman. “That says a lot about this contest.”
Burkett has taken 20 teams to the national contest. In that time he had teams place in the top five in the nation 17 times, and won national titles three times.
Henderson credits the event founders, primarily Henry Richards of the Richards ranch, with having a vision for what the contest should be and carrying out that vision to create a quality contest.
Richard’s great-nephew, Brent Hackley, is carrying on contest traditions his now-deceased great-uncle helped establish. Hackley serves on the Jack SWCD Board and was proud to have the contest hosted on his family’s ranch this year.
“I did these contests when I was in high school here in Jacksboro and now that I am involved in our ranch’s management, those skills I learned mean a lot to me with every day decision making,” Hackley says. “Hosting the contest is just one small way to give back all that the valuable things this contest has taught me.”
Burkett says he has been amazed over the years at how the contest preparation and participation has actually shaped students’ career path. He has had students that became natural resource lawyers, landscape architects, wildlife biologists, ag teachers, county agents, and natural resource conservationists. According to Burkett, many current and retired NRCS employees have participated in the contest.
Henderson is quick to thank NRCS employees for their help putting on the contest. “Support from the NRCS is crucial to this contest,” he says. “We couldn’t do it without their technical support. They are so good to come out here the day before and set everything up with us and then help the day of the contest when we need them.”
Henderson credits former Jack County NRCS District Conservationist Tony Dean for providing 35 years of support for the contest. After Dean retired, Matt Gregory came in at the new district conservationist for the county and has been equally supportive, Henderson says.
Standing on a hilltop looking out over a sea of students scattered on the rangeland below, Henderson smiles, soaking in the scene, and says, “We have just had the right people in place to keep this contest going. It’s something we are all really proud of.”