The Virginia Tech Hokies Soil Judging Team finished first out of 21 teams at the 2022 National Collegiate Soils Contest sponsored by the Soil Science Society of America and hosted by The Ohio State University on April 18-23 near Marysville, Ohio.

The last sweep of all three events — individual, group, and team — was by Auburn University in 2015.

The Hokies finished in first place, followed by North Carolina State University, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, the University of Maryland, and the University of Delaware. The Hokies also finished first in the group judging event, followed by the University of Rhode Island, West Virginia University, and Utah State University.

Ben Atkins of Virginia Tech captured first place in the individual contest. The top four students were invited to participate in the fourth International Union of Soil Science International Soil Judging Contest in Sterling, Scotland, in August. Following behind Atkins were: Curtis Murphy, North Carolina State University, second place;  Isaac Nollen, University Wisconsin-Platteville, third place; Kkennadi Griffis, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, fourth place; and Clare Tallamy, Virginia Tech, fifth place. All four Hokies placed in the top 17 out of 84 participants.

This is the seventh national championship for Virginia Tech and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the second-most of any school. Virginia Tech finished second in both the 2019 and 2018 contests and first in the 2020 Virtual Soil Judging Contest, held to replace the on-site contest because of the pandemic.

The students practiced twice per week in the classroom and the field and had homework assignments weekly.

In Ohio, they spent three intensive practice days describing soils derived from glacial till, outwash, lacustrine sediments, and loess. They braved freezing temperatures, snow and sleet, high winds, pits partially filled with water, and muddy conditions before the weather finally cleared up for the two competition days.

“This contest was very well attended because it was the first in-person national event since the pandemic began,” said coach John Galbraith, a professor of soil and wetland sciences in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “I think soil and agriculture students across America were anxious to get outside and practice their field skills before they graduated. Soil judging is a perfect way to enhance their resume and gain some practical field skills at the same time as they are learning more about glaciated soils in the Corn Belt and meeting students from other universities. The contest host held lectures for them about the unique geology of the area, and they were able to see how the clayey soils were very wet at this time of year and very susceptible to accelerated runoff and erosion during heavy rains. Soil erosion is a major concern for local farmers.”

The Virginia Tech Soil Judging Team during the group event at the 2022 National Championship. Photo courtesy of John Galbraith.

The Virginia Tech Soil Judging Team during the group event at the 2022 National Championship.
The Virginia Tech Soil Judging Team during the group event at the 2022 national championship. Photo courtesy of John Galbraith.

The team of 12 students was coached by Galbraith and Jaclyn Fiola, a doctoral candidate studying vineyard soils.

Atkins is a senior from Victoria, Virginia; team captain Clare Tallamy and Kate Johnson (17th place) are seniors from Leesburg, Virginia; Adam Devlin (15th place) is a senior from Roanoke. Soil Judging Club President Bernie Frantz, a junior from Shavertown, Pennsylvania, led the group judging effort along with Tessa Naughton-Rockwell, a senior from Alexandria, Virginia; Alex Greehan, a senior from McLean, Virginia; Peter Arnold, a junior from Chestertown, Maryland; Madison Norris, a junior from San Antonio, Texas; Zach Gesa, a sophomore from Lovettsville, Virginia; Liz Eroshenko, a freshman from Richmond; and Carmen Curry, a sophomore from Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Most of the students are studying environmental science, except for Frantz, Naughton-Rockwell, and Arnold, who study crop and soil science, and Greehan, who studies mechanical engineering.

“We are especially proud of how hard this team practiced and how well they worked together as a team. Those two factors set them apart from the other schools,” Fiola said.  

The contest consisted of three individual soil pit descriptions by Atkins, Tallamy, Devlin, and Johnson. The rest of the team did two individual pit descriptions on Friday, and then all 12 joined together to describe two soil pits as a group on Saturday.

“The students were very good ambassadors for our school and our university,” Galbraith said. “They made friends with students from other schools that will some day be their colleagues. Coach Fiola and I are very proud of them. This victory would not have been possible without the excellent organization, coaching, and planning skills of coach Fiola. She recruited and shepherded them through the last several semesters, and her hard work paid off."

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