Once every four years, elite competitors from across the globe gather for intense competition on unfamiliar soil. It’s not the Olympics. It’s the World Soil Judging Competition.
The British Society of Soil Scientists hosted the event during the World Congress of Soil Science in Glasgow, Scotland. Upholding tradition, Team USA, including the Wolfpack this year, brought home gold.
The Best of The U.S.
Crop and Soil Sciences’ recent alumnus Curtis Murphy was one of four Team USA members (and alternates) from around the country who trained and trekked to compete in the land of peat bogs. Murphy qualified for the team by placing second in the 2022 U.S. National Collegiate Soil Judging Competition. The top four scoring individuals earned a spot on the America’s quadrennial team.
Murphy joined team members from Virginia Tech, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and the University of Nebraska. The students met briefly at the national competition but had never worked as a team. Virtual training hosted by coach John Galbraith from Virginia Tech proved invaluable.
“The U.S. has a long tradition of soil judging,” Murphy said. “But internationally, the soil taxonomy and judging cards are totally different. So that was a major learning curve.”
Learning and Navigating The Bogs
Nine countries sent teams for the multi-day event. An immersive education on Scottish soils led to group and individual competitions that included identifying and classifying soil types most contestants had never seen before.
“We had four days of lectures and field visits to learn about the local soil-forming processes and land features we’d encounter. On the first field day, we visited a peat bog at the base of a glacial mountain. It was amazing.”
Exploring Scotland’s unique soil landscape would have been easier without foot blisters, but Murphy’s suitcase didn’t make it to Scotland at the same time he did.
“I had to hike the first day in the cowboy boots I’d worn on the plane,” snickered Murphy. “Luckily I had all of my field gear in a carry-on bag. I tried to be inconspicuous with the limping, but lesson learned.”
The week culminated with the formal contest on Sunday. Teams had one hour in and out of freshly dug soil pits to make and confer on their assessments. The combination of foreign soil and the differing notation format created a formidable challenge.
“There was definitely pressure to keep the Team USA title. The U.S. has won the world competition all four times it was held. We didn’t want to break that streak,” Murphy said.
“Our coach, Dr. Galbraith, liked to sandbag us, but I was fairly confident. We were well prepared and experienced with the contest-style event, unlike some of the teams who were trained in soils but had never competed before.”
The award ceremony was a whirlwind as teams were ushered directly onstage, still in field gear, at the World Soil Congress’ opening session. “We didn’t know exactly what was happening as we walked out on stage, but assumed it had to be good,” Murphy said. “It was an amazing moment to know that for all the work put in, we’d actually done it.”
Team USA’s travel trophy will be kept at the Soil Scientists Society of America headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin, until the next World Congress in 2026.
Murphy (left) poses with other Team USA members on stage with the World Soil Juding trophy.
This trip to Scotland was Murphy’s first out of the country and held some interesting duality.
“We stayed in sight of Stirling Castle which was built around 1000 A.D. It was shockingly old compared to anything in the U.S.!” he said.
The competition’s personal interactions were equally surprising.
“After hanging out with all of these like-minded people, I saw that the world’s not that different. We were all people with the same interests and issues — devoted to soil science and improving our skills. We were really similar despite being from across the world.”
If the Cap Fits…
Murphy had set the World Soil Judging Contest as a personal goal before graduating with dual majors in agricultural engineering and natural resource land use in the spring of 2022.
“The competition was the culmination of my time at NC State. After four years of studies and soil judging, it was the fitting cap. And it so accurately answers the question of ‘How well does NC State teach soil science?”
Matt Ricker, associate professor of soil pedology, coaches NC State’s soil judging team.
“Soil judging is a field class that quickly teaches students how to describe soils and make land use interpretations. Students see more soils in a week of competition than the rest of their entire undergraduate career,” Ricker said. “Curtis was an exceptional collegiate soil judger placing individually in the top 10 in every contest he entered since 2018. The skills he gained will no doubt benefit him as he transitions to a professional career.”
Murphy is now pursuing a master’s degree in engineering at NC State. He will be working on drone imagery to measure moisture stress in corn. But the soil judging competition revealed to him an important personal truth.
“This experience was really special. It confirmed that I need to keep some aspect of soils in my career path,” Murphy reflected.
He plans to volunteer as an assistant coach for NC State’s soil judging team in the coming year.
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