Sarah Bailey: Fresh From the Pit

NC State freshman Sarah Bailey accepts a first place award at the 2023 Eastern Collegiate Soil Judging Competition.

NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences is home to over 350 students pursuing two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees in agricultural and environmental sciences. Our mission is to connect them with the opportunities and careers that solve growing challenges.

Our students stay busy with classes, homework, and hands-on experiences that equip them for meaningful careers. 

Recently, we talked with Sarah Bailey, a freshman majoring in soil science, to learn how she won first place in college soil judging her first time out.

Hi Sarah, where are you from?

I’m from Mooresville, North Carolina.

What led you to NC State?

My dad’s side of the family were dairy farmers, and I always knew that I wanted to study agriculture in some way. I was diagnosed with Celiac disease as a young person and wanted to learn more about food and study plants rather than animals, and I knew NC State was the right place to pursue that interest.

How did you decide on a soil science major?

In high school, I took several classes at Mitchell Community College as part of the Associate in Sciences degree and agriculture CTE pathway. I studied sustainable agriculture, agronomy, soil science and agricultural chemicals. They were all small class sizes with lots of hands-on learning. 

My instructor, Amy Poirer, was an NC State alumna. She taught me how to texturize the soil, which was a great starting point in learning about soil science, and I loved it. 

That class gave me permission to play in the dirt. I knew I wanted to go to NC State and study soils.

What’s been your favorite class so far?

Since it’s my first semester, I only have a few to compare. But my favorite so far is Dr. Bob Patterson’s World Populations and Food Prospects class (STS-323). 

He is a wealth of knowledge, tells fun stories and really cares about his students. We have had lots of guest lectures. Two that I really enjoyed were Dr. David Jordan’s talk about issues farmers face and soil fertility extension specialist Dr. Luke Gatiboni, who talked about some work he has recently done in Uzbekistan with USAID.

You’ve only been on campus for nine weeks! How have you already competed with a student team?

Sarah Bailey and NC State soil judging teammates at the 2023 Eastern regional competition.I knew about it and wanted to join the soil judging team, but I couldn’t enroll in the associated class because of a prerequisite that I obviously didn’t have as a first-semester freshman. 

I spoke with Dr. David Crouse, who encouraged me to reach out and speak with the class professor Dr. Matt Ricker. He immediately agreed and I was registered the same day.

Wait. So, you haven’t even taken the introductory soil science class yet (SSC 200)?

I’ll take that in the spring. I wanted to compete with the soil judging team and had to be in the soil judging class. I was floored that they worked with me to make it happen.

I participated in the Resource Conservation Workshop and Institute for Future Agricultural Leaders during high school, so I had some background in soils besides the community college class.

The Eastern regional collegiate soil judging contest was in early October. How did that go?

Sarah Bailey smiles up from a soil judging pit at the 2023 Eastern Collegiate Soil Judging competitionIt was my first time competing, so I was really nervous. Eight people from the class formed the team and traveled to West Virginia. I kept apologizing to my teammates, thinking I was dragging them down. But they were all so positive and supportive.

We practiced in four soil pits per day for three days. It was intense, but my teammates shared their knowledge, and our coach, Dr. Matt Ricker, gave us lots of tips and tricks. All of which were really helpful.   

I was doing well in practice but got really nervous when I learned that I would compete as one of the four judgers whose scores count for the whole team. 

Our assistant coach, Jacob Cheers, gave me the best advice: “Trust your gut. Don’t erase anything.” And it worked.

How did you do as an individual soil judger?

We had to judge four pits in a row for the competition and then wait around three hours for the results. It was nerve-racking. When the West Virginia coach announced the top twenty and then the top ten, I never heard my name. I thought I had failed.

When he announced first place, he said, “from NC State,” and I thought it had to be someone else. My face just dropped when he said my name. He asked if that was me, and all I could do was nod my head in acknowledgment. Dr. Ricker told me to go up, and that’s when I finally got out of my seat. The whole room gasped when they learned I was a freshman. 

I was so excited that I called my parents at 1 a.m. on the way home!

How about the team overall?

We placed second as a team, which is a great start. We qualified to compete at the national competition hosted at Iowa State in April.

NC State's 2023 Soil Judging Team
(L to R) Adam Miller, Sarah Bailey, Francesca Gervase, Tommy Godwin, Jordan Harris, Sarah Tolman, Lexi Seal, Michael Caldwell

Congratulations! How did the team celebrate?

Assistant coach Jacob Cheers offered to buy dinner for anyone placing in the top 10. So I got a free Wendy’s baked potato and frosty out of the deal. Woo hoo!

Do you worry that your first competitive performance sets the bar high?

[Laughing] Yes, but I’m trying to keep it all in perspective. Each competition and each year is completely different. NC State has a strong soil-judging history. Curtis Murphy competed and aided Team USA in winning the international competition last year, so I’m following in some big pawprints.

But I know that soils change with time, and my understanding of them will change, too.

What is your career goal?

I’m thinking that I might want to pursue a master’s degree, which should open the door to bigger opportunities. I’m a people person. So, I’m thinking of some type of consulting. I want to get out in the field and work with farmers to help firsthand.

What’s your advice to a student who is new on campus?

Put yourself out there! Get involved in student clubs. It’s so much fun and the best way to meet people with similar interests. And also try a lot of things while you have the time. Test the waters in everything that interests you. It helps to rule a lot of things in and out.   

NC State freshman Sarah Bailey poses with her parents on campus.

Picture yourself in crop and soil sciences. 

If you are looking for an academic path that leads to a career of impact, consider crop and soil sciences. Our students learn from expert professors and experience hands-on adventures every day.  

Learn more about our student degree pathways, including deep dives into our agronomy, soil science and turfgrass programs. Then, join us for a guided email tour of our Crop & Soil Sciences Department.  

Connecting students with fertile careers is just part of how we are growing the future.

NC State's logo in a soil pit