At the top in the pits: USA team wins international soil judging contest

To four budding soil scientists, soil is not just what’s underfoot. It’s a passion, and a key to future success.

Sponsored by the Agronomic Science Foundation, four students—Stephen Geib, Kristen Pegues, Erin Bush, Adrienne Nottingham—took first place overall in the Second International Field Course and Soil Judging Contest in Gödöllő, Hungary, September 1-5. Joey Shaw of Auburn University coached the team with assistance from Stephanie Connolly of the U.S. Forest Service.

Team USA, first place overall in International Soil Juding, with Hungarian soilSoil scientists use the skill of soil judging in their daily jobs. They look at and feel the soil to determine its health, carbon content, drainage properties, and other factors. Using only their eyes, sense of touch, and a limited set of tools, they make land usage recommendations about agriculture, construction, wastewater treatment, recreation, and more. In addition, many companies who hire crop advisors look for excellent soil judging skills.

Participants from 28 countries displayed “their ability to correctly describe each soil, evaluate potential soil functions and interpret their capacity to perform under different land use and management practices,” according to the competition’s web site.

Additionally, Team USA members ranked well in the individual contest. Pegues came in first place, with Bush ranking fourth and Geib and Nottingham tied for seventh.

Given their success, it would be easy to assume these teammates had a long history together. Not so. Team USA members came from separate states and different universities. Prior to the competition, their only contact was through weekly conference calls and a few days of travel and instruction prior to the contest. 

“It was not problem to blend into a team,” said Nottingham, a student at West Virginia University. “We are all pretty competitive. We all had our individual roles and got along well.”

The team was also the youngest, with three recent college graduates and one undergraduate. Other teams were composed of graduate students and soil professionals.

“I felt pretty intimidated from the beginning when I realized that I was the youngest on my team,” Bush stated. “And then once we arrived in Gödöllő and met the other teams comprised of graduate students, doctoral students, and some professionals, that intimidation increased quite a bit and things got ‘real’ fast.” Bush is a Kansas State University student.

Team USA in Hungarian soil pit during competitionTwo days of the competition involved hands-on, in-the-field soil evaluation, as individuals and then as teams, in pre-dug pits approximately five feet deep. Weather provided an extra challenge with steady rain making the pits into muddy holes. Answer cards became soggy, unreadable pulp. Time was also of the essence.

“The pits were so different from anything I had ever seen but we only had about an hour per pit. It really forced you to key in on the major concepts quickly,” Nottingham said.

A final obstacle remained: the convergence of two soil classification systems in this international competition. “Now add a second world system of soil evaluation and you have our challenge.” Geib reflected. “Personally, I think this was the biggest challenge we overcame as a team. We already had experience soil judging, but adapting to the influences of the other system challenged us to adjust and acclimate.” Geib is a recent graduate of Delaware Valley University. He has recently accepted a position as the agriculture science teacher at Pine Grove Area High School in Schuylkill County, PA.

Pegues felt the pressure balanced with opportunity. “It was never about beating each other. As a competitive American, I wanted to do well, but it was more about learning and building relationships with my teammates and the other countries.” Pegues is a recent graduate of Auburn University. She will be continuing her studies at the University of Georgia.

The competition also inspired. “I’m very passionate about soil science. I have a ‘soils bucket list’ of structures, colors, and soil types that I want to see. Sodium-affected soils have been on my bucket list since I learned about them and I got to see them on this trip, including a structure called columnar which is shaped like columns with a biscuit on top,” Nottingham said.

“Most of the U.S. team was from humid regions so it was interesting to observe soils with salts and lots of carbonates that we don’t typically see,” Shaw added.

For these soil scientists, the future is key. “We are the students who are training to be a resource to the nation in the future,” Nottingham said. “Soil scientists are involved in so many fields: medical, microbiology, engineering, and ecosystem services.”

“What an amazing group of young people,” Connolly commented. “They had a lot of pressure right away. But put a bunch of motivated students in a pit and you will find out what they can do.”

The competition was held as part of the United Nation’s International Year of the Soils. “The U.S. team would like to express their gratitude to Dr. Erika Micheli and Szent István University for organizing and developing this exceptional educational event,” Shaw said. “Soils sustain life and are our most precious natural resource. Recognizing the importance of this resource is vital to its protection and stewardship.”

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