1113wirt-SDSU team

By Janet Kubat Willette

BROOKINGS, S.D. — A southeastern Minnesota native led her dairy products judging team to a national championship.

Abbie Wirt, 21, a Lewiston native, placed first overall in the 2008 National Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest, held Oct. 22 in Newark, Ohio. Her South Dakota State University team also placed first overall. A total of 42 undergraduates and 16 graduate students from 15 schools competed.

Wirt, the 2007-08 Minnesota FFA reporter, missed receiving her American FFA degree at the National FFA Convention in order to participate in the evaluation contest.


She didn’t compete in dairy foods judging in 4-H or FFA.

"I actually asked our coach ‘am I going to be at a disadvantage because I’ve never done it before and he said no,’’’ Wirt said. "We have a really good coach."

The contest was the cumulation of a two-year commitment, Wirt said. All SDSU dairy manufacturing and dairy production majors must take the dairy products judging course offered during the spring semester.

SDSU dairy evaluation team coach Bob Baer has worked out a strategy where sophomore students take the course in the spring, followed by an advanced course the following fall. Students repeat the advanced course again as seniors and the class ends with the national contest.

The students help each other prepare for the competition, Baer said. The national contest is a five-hour event where students judge the flavor, body and texture, and appearance and color of 2 percent milk, Swiss style strawberry yogurt, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, butter and vanilla ice cream.

Students practice for an hour each weekday, calibrating their taste buds, Wirt said.

Baer purchases commercial product samples and alters some of the products to have certain defects. Students have to identify the defect and then learn to differentiate between slight, definite and pronounced.

"It takes a lot of skill and a lot of time," Baer said. "Students are very dedicated."


Wirt said she had no idea how she did heading into the awards banquet at the national contest.

"It’s really hard to tell if you’ve done well right after the contest," Wirt said, "because you don’t know the official score."

She certainly didn’t suspect she was the high individual.

"It was a complete surprise," Wirt said. "I guess God works in mysterious ways."

When her name was called as the top individual at the contest, Wirt said she looked at her coach and asked him if he was sure it was her.

"He just nodded," Wirt said, "and said something like go get your award."

"She’s a great student," Baer said.

The entire Dairy Products Evaluation team, which was the first all-female team Baer coached to a national championship, worked hard, Baer said.


"This year’s team was excellent in all the products and their placings showed how good of a team they were and they worked very hard to achieve their goals," he said.

This was the 21st team Baer coached for the national contest and he was named the Aurelia and George Weigold Coach of the Year.

SDSU has a long tradition of competing in the evaluation contest. The college sent its first team to national competition in 1916, Baer said, with the team riding the train from Brookings to Springfield, Mass. Since that time, SDSU has sent a team to 70-some contests and earned seven national titles. The university usually places in the top three in the nation.

This year’s competition came from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Florida, Virginia Tech, the University of Alberta, the University of Manitoba and others.

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