URI team wins regional soil judging competition, advances to nationals in April

KINGTON, R.I. – November 8, 2021 – A team of nine students at the University of Rhode Island won the Northeast Regional Soil Judging Competition in Pennsylvania last month, while members of the team placed second, fifth, seventh and eleventh in the individual competition. The URI team bested students from seven other universities throughout the region, propelling them to the national competition in Ohio in April.

            According to URI Professor Mark Stolt, the adviser to the URI team, soil judging is a contest to correctly identify, evaluate, classify and describe the profiles of soils from pits dug into the ground. Students must climb into five-foot deep pits to identify the soil layers or horizons, describe their properties, classify each soil according to the USDA soil taxonomy, and evaluate their potential uses. The team and individuals with the most accurate evaluation win.

URI students Morgana Agin and Casey Hogan analyze soils in a pit during the Northeast Regional Soil Judging Competition, which URI won in October. (Photo by Joe Manetta)

            URI has a long record of success in soil judging competitions. The University won the national team championship in 2011 and has placed in the top five three times in the last decade. A URI student has won the National Collegiate Soils Contest three times since 2010.

            “We’ve got an excellent mentor who prepared us well, and I think that’s what it came down to this year,” said junior Braden Fleming of East Greenwich, who placed second in this year’s competition. “Even before hearing the announcement of the scores, I felt good about this team.”

            Fleming became interested in soil judging after learning about the vital role soils play in what he called “the life cycle of everything.” But what he most enjoyed was the atmosphere of the competition and spending time with other students with a similar interest.

            “I grew up in team sports, and it was cool to get that same competitive feeling with all these people,” said Fleming, who plans to use his soil judging experience in a career as an environmental consultant. “It was an incredible learning experience, and being part of a team again and helping each other out was awesome.”

            Senior Morgana Agin of Portsmouth agreed. She’s seen all the URI trophies and knows the University’s reputation in soil judging, so she knew expectations were high. But she felt the most stress during the practice sessions just before the competition because the soils in Pennsylvania are so very different from those in Rhode Island.

            “The complexity of soils is really interesting,” she said. “There are so many different things to learn about it. And it’s so important for the health of our planet and our food and us living here. It’s an up-and-coming science, which makes it exciting to be a part of.”

            Agin said that participating on the soil judging team has been good practice for what she envisions she will be doing in a future job in sustainable agriculture.

            “This is all stuff we have to know in any soil-related job,” she said. “It’s been good to have to apply what we’ve learned in the classroom. Being out there in the dirt and testing ourselves was really useful. And it was nice to work with each other and get to know other people in my major.”

            Senior Casey Hogan of Cumberland, who placed eleventh in the regional competition, is focused on a water-related career, but he said that “anybody who knows anything about water knows that soils and water are interrelated. Like pizza and beer, they go together. Having a good understanding of the chemistry of soils helps you understand how water works.”

            Hogan said that what he likes most about soil judging is the learning experience.

            “Everywhere has different soils, so it’s really cool to see something you’ve never seen before and understand the different problems associated with different areas,” he said. “It’s empowering to be able to go into a pit and make real world decisions, like where you can and can’t build a house or put a septic system, based on reading the soil.”

            And while he was a little disappointed that he didn’t make the top 10 in the individual competition, he was still pleased with the overall outcome.

            “There were a couple things that were a little unorthodox that I wasn’t expecting, so that contributed to not doing as well as I would have liked,” he said. “But I’m still happy with it. And I’ll be ready for the nationals next spring.”

            The other members of the URI soil judging team are Alexandra Beardwood, Erin Devin (7th place), Sophia Lopardo, Andrew McNulty, Sam Pagliarini and Tim Piacentini (5th place).