Instead of sunshine and beaches, it was the dirt of California that drew a team of students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to the West Coast last week.
UNL’s soil judging team had a record performance at the 2019 National Collegiate Soils Contest at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, from April 14 to 19.
The competition consisted of both individual and group soil judging. UNL earned third place overall, first in the national team competition and team member Samantha Teten, a senior agronomy major, earned 10th for her individual performance.
The team qualified for the national competition after earning first place at the regional competition at Kansas State University in fall 2018, according to Judy Turk, co-coach and assistant professor in the college of natural resources.
Kansas State University, Iowa State University and Missouri State University also went to nationals from UNL’s region, Region 5, Turk said.
The team’s performance at nationals this year was UNL’s best ever, Turk said.
Bryan Petersen, a junior applied climate science major, said the team’s ability to work together and the guidance of the team’s coaches pushed them to succeed.
“Not that I was doubting us, but I wasn't expecting to do that well,” he said. “But it was a very good surprise.”
He also said part of UNL’s strength was the support from its School of Natural Resources and the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture that allowed all 14 of the team’s students to travel to the competition.
During the competition, the team judged pits of soil across the San Luis Obispo area.
Soil judging is a complex process where students examine soil characteristics like color, texture, density and the different horizons, or layers, Turk said.
“Students like the chance to get outside,” she said. “A lot of them, I think, also enjoy the competition aspect of it.”
Turk said a soil professional judged the findings of the teams.
Teams were able to practice at other sites in San Luis Obispo before the competition began to get a feel for the region’s soil, Turk said.
Petersen said the soil team offers students the chance to experience different kinds of soil, not just those in Nebraska.
“For soil judging you travel all around the United States and experience and learn about different types of soils,” he said. “Soil is so diverse and maybe people don't realize that.”
Turk said students take “SOIL 279: Soil Evaluation,” in the fall as part of the soil judging team, where they learn how to evaluate soil and then apply those skills at competitions.
The competitions also provide an opportunity to travel somewhere new, Petersen said.
“I've never been to the Pacific coast myself and going there and experiencing the nice, warm, sunny weather was great.”
Teten said she will utilize both information and teamwork skills from her soil judging experience in her future career in agronomy.
“What I got the most out of it was working with a group, even through a very stressful situation,” she said. “And for me, like the actual skills of understanding soil is really important for my future career and like how we understand soil better for crop growth and raising food for the world.”
Competition also has a larger benefit in how it brings team members together, she said.
“It’s a diverse group of students that all meet for the first time,” she said. “And by the end of the semester we're all best friends because we all have that common interest, and that love, for what we're doing.”