Past Tales: Soil Judging 2017

judging 6A short recount from Soil Judging in Toowoomba, written in 2017.

My journey with the soil judging team started with an unruly banner. I asked Cameron Grant to help me fold it, and Cam (rather desperately) asked me to fill in the last position in the soil judging team. I consulted my calendar, said yes (Cam: “you ****ing beauty!”), and that’s that.

Pre Departure

September is always my busiest month (springtime gallivanting) so I didn’t make it to the bulk of training sessions, but I had the advantage of previous experience in soil judging and demonstrating in soils classes. However, Cam (as team coach) and James Hall (as external professional) put aside a substantial amount of time to force a small amount of their infinite knowledge of pedology into the team members’ heads. In the sessions that I managed to attend, the values of thoroughness and good communication were thoroughly beaten into our heads (via good communication, of course).

Our final training session took place at a very special soil pit that Cam arranged last minute; he tells us it was dug specially for the occasion, but I’m not so sure. We worked on the edge of Waite Road and classified the roadworks’ road cutting with the sun setting gloriously over our shoulders. That is, the team squatted on the side of the road and classified a soil profile split in half by a pipe in rapidly declining light conditions. Overall, it was pretty good but we were really slow (in time and mind).

Day One – Sydney Airport’s Spanner in the Works

On the first day of the event, we flew to Toowoomba via Sydney. Cam ensured us he would be there early and that we should be there no later than 10am. A kerfuffle at check-in meant that the team was there early, and our dear coach was the laggard. Naturally, the day we fly via Sydney was the day Sydney airport closed due to a computer error. Thankfully, it was largely sorted by the time we came through; the team from University of Sydney was not so fortunate and arrived well into the night rather than late afternoon.

Driving from the Toowoomba airport to our accommodation, we passed through Australia’s richest agricultural soils (The Darling Downs) Cam could have died happy at that moment, as he realised his dream of visiting the region. After arriving, we started the main goal of the event – networking. The soil judging organisers put on a welcoming BBQ with some of the best mushrooms and worst beer one can buy. Everyone was very restrained (on the beer, not the mushrooms) because the soil judging practice pits started bright and early at 7am the next day.

Day Two – The Scone Tour and Practice Pits

Thirteen teams from nine universities participated in the competition. Naturally, you can’t have sixty people clustered around a soil pit and have them learn anything, so we broke into two groups for two days of soil judging practice. One of the teams on our bus was University of New England (UNE), who only had three members and whose coach had been unable to attend at the last moment. We (Team SA) through Cam (as coach) took them under our collective wings and brought them into the Team SA fold.

The first pit our team visited was the worst pit (the organisers’ opinion, not ours). A relatively uniform red ferrosol (a nutrient poor soil found in high rainfall regions) with indistinct features that had formed from a relatively recent ash deposit. In Australia though, relatively recent is still millions of years ago. We acquired a hot tip at this point – there would not be a ferrosol on the competition day.

The organisers provided fruit and water, then we visited Cam’s favourite soil – a deep black vertosol (cracking clays that are exceptionally nutrient rich soils). Our introduction to the most famous soils of Queensland was a challenge – there were apparently 5 distinct horizons in a soil that looked largely uniform to our untrained eyes. With Cam’s encouragement, we worked as a team (with some communication), on the profile and diligently got most of it somewhat wrong, and the rest of it entirely wrong. We also discovered the strange phenomenon of vertosols where you can have an extreme colour change without a change in soil origin. Weird stuff.

After a lunch of Vietnamese cold rolls (or something similar), we travelled to a South Australian special – a calcarosol (an alkaline soil with calcium carbonate throughout the profile)! They drove us to a dusty, desolate looking paddock covered in large chunks of white rock in an otherwise fertile area, dug a ‘pit’ of 30cm and hit bedrock. The rocks – calcium carbonate, the bedrock – calcium carbonate, the paddock – nothing more than an academic curiosity featuring wind erosion and limestone. At this point we should remember that a lot of agriculture is conducted on calcarosols in SA.

The organisers made up for the rather underwhelming calcarosol by taking the tour to the best event of practice days – the Jondaryan Woolshed for an afternoon tea of Tea and Scones (with jam and cream, of course). This automatically made the QLD Soil Judging Competition the best one held in Australia ever. It also meant everyone was in a food coma when we needed to move to the final practice pit of the day; it was slow going. Before we left, UNE decided to run through the sprinklers to cool off – surely a stroke of genius on what was a fairly warm day.

Fortunately, the final pit of the day was the most amazing pit of the whole week, unfortunately, everyone was pretty knackered by this point (tired and full of scones). The soil was another vertosol, and was a text-book perfect example of gilgai (mounds and depressions that form naturally in vertosols) and mukkara (subsoil squeezed up between layers of topsoil due to mysterious natural forces). Cam was the happiest soil scientist on Earth at that point, and we were pretty impressed too. We worked on this profile, finished on time, and got almost everything kinda right – an improvement!

That night an impromptu BBQ was held in Queens Park to finish the leftovers from the welcoming BBQ. Unsurprisingly, there was an awful lot of beer left but this time no-one cared too much: it had been a long hot day in the sun, particularly for the delicate souls of NSW and New Zealand. Beth (Team SA) took it upon herself to ensure everyone was hydrated and sunscreen covered – excepting herself of course; she doesn’t need to drink and doesn’t get sunburnt. Again, most people restrained themselves on the alcohol front – the competitiveness was starting to show.

Day Three: Smashing Out Good Practice Pit Descriptions

The second day of practice pits was the turning point for our team and UNE. The soils were easier in the morning, and more complicated in the afternoon – a perfect opportunity to return to basics and then challenge ourselves. Communication within the team was good and rapidly improving, and thoroughness was provided by the highly amusing (but thorough) misunderstandings of Esther and Beth.

Practice pits on day four were provided by the Gatton Research Facility. The first soil, a sodosol (common in SA: sand over sodic clay – a generally awful soil for production) was gently nestled between a swamp and livestock pens, and perfumed with the delicate scent of pig manure. A taste of home at last! A soil class we were familiar with. We finished this pit, and the chromosol (common in SA: sand over clay) at the second pit with plenty of time to spare. It was time to turn up the team challenge – for the final two practice pits, we got no help from Cam and worked to the official times permitted for a competition pit.

At this point, I’d like to reflect on the atmosphere that we were working in. While the practice days weren’t as hot and awful as predicted, they were still quite hot and fairly unpleasant. At no point did anyone break their cool. Cam was perpetually cheerful and helpful, there were no arguments between the team members (discussion, yes), no tears, no sullenness or pouting. There were, instead, infinite bad puns, dad jokes, collaboration, laughter and happiness. Even in the early morning and the late evening. It was the perfect example of group work done well. Esther (with Cam’s help) provided dad jokes, Shan provided quiet intellectual sturdiness (and carried the very heavy judging kit), and Beth ensured everyone was hydrated and covered in sunscreen (excepting herself, of course).

That afternoon, we worked to competition standards as a team on a vertosol and as individuals on a dermosol (youthful transitional soil that may become any of the previously mentioned soils). We smashed it out; it was glorious. UNE also felt far more comfortable with judging as a team, as the easier soils helped cement some core ideas for them.

That night, we arranged to have dinner at the pub with University of Sydney. Unfortunately they were quite late, and by the time they arrived there were no seats left at our table. We had dinner with the students from UNE and had a delightful time. We learnt another hot tip at this point – if you can’t tell the colour because everything is equally dark, then there’s a default colour (10YR 3/2 for those interested).

Day Four: The Worst Possible Competition Weather and Chicken Dinner

The weather on competition day was hands down the worst weather I’ve ever been asked to work in. A maximum of 37°C with a hot north westerly gusting at more than 50 km/h that blew all day. I learnt a new Australianism: “dry as a budgies’ bum”. Beautiful imagery. Truly epic volumes of water were consumed by all the participants. It’s also important to note that yes, Beth got sunburnt and yes, we made her apply sunscreen and yes, she was still sunburnt the next day. During the competition, coaches weren’t allowed to interact with their students, so Cam got the extremely important job of ferrying water around (in his words, a water bitch). Naturally, he did this with a sunny disposition and good humour.

The pit order of the day was Pit 2 (team pit), Pit 3 (individual pit), and Pit 1 (team pit) – a nice, balanced day. We smashed out both the team pits, and discovered (after the fact) that half the team thought the individual pit was a dermosol and the other half thought it was a vertosol. Of course, we later learned that both halves were wrong, but it was nice to dream of winning the best individual prize for a while. Unfortunately the message that there would not be a ferrosol in the competition didn’t reach everyone and a few people from other teams were definitely quite wrong in their final classification.

As soon as the people of Pit 1 (i.e. Team SA) were done for the day, discussion and speculation on the pit was rife. The general consensus – it was either a dermosol or a vertosol. A handful of people thought it was a sodosol which threw a spanner in the discussion and made everyone question their careful observations. Could it technically be a sodosol? Would this whole thing depend on a technicality? A spirited discussion broke out between some organisers and coaches arguing the points for and against certain classifications. We later learned that the classification was meant to be easy, and that the whole problem was caused by a mistake when marking out a patch of earth to look at – an errant crack in an otherwise uncracked surface.

We were dismissed for the day in the mid-afternoon and told to reconvene at dinner. Naturally, we went to the local pub first – but just for a seven.

The rumours started at dinner and were confirmed later. A technicality had indeed played an important role in the competition. A sneaky, underhanded, silly technicality showing just how much of this can be down to the correct interpretation of the Australian Soil Classification. The individual pit, which most people classified as a dermosol or a vertosol, was indeed, a chromosol. It technically fell into the classification based on intense reading of the fine print on what determines ‘texture contrast’. No reasonable person would classify it such – it is obviously a dermosol that will eventually become a vertosol. No competitor classified it as such, and yet, technically it was a chromosol.

After a well-earned chicken or steak dinner, the team winners were announced; and let’s be honest, we were aiming for top 3. The team from UNE, with only 3 people and an adopted coach (Cam), was announced as third place! The crowd loved it. We were astounded, happy and sad at the same time because, surely, that was it. Third was the best we could hope for. And then it happened – second place was awarded to Team SA! It was amazing, to go from second last at the Western Australian competition to second place in the Toowoomba competition! It’s an excellent reflection on Cam as a coach, not only did his team get 2nd place, but our adopted team came 3rd as well!

University of Sydney came first of course: they work much harder at training back home than anyone else, and hard work pays off.

After the main event, further prizes were awarded base on the overall merit of participants in certain categories. Team SA won two of the awards. The first, and perhaps most embarrassing, was the ‘Best Dressed’ award – which was awarded to me for my khaki on khaki field wear; dubbed the Safari Line. What can I say: I like practical brown clothes. The second, and most important, was the ‘Everything is Awesome’ award – awarded to Cam due to his unending excitement and enthusiasm about the soils of the competition and the competition itself. Cam was also specifically thanked by Ivanah Oliver from UNE for his adoption of their team when they needed guidance and encouragement. No doubt he’ll play it down if you ask, but really – he was awesome.

We have been informed by the organisers that we are ‘soft as’ for turning in at the respectable hour of before-ten-pm, but we were all thoroughly tuckered out (of communicating so well).

Day Five: Puttering About in Toowoomba

Our final day had no soil judging events or activities. It started with good coffee, and was a day of rest, relaxation, and PhD/assignments for myself and Beth. The others went out and had a good time, but I’ll let them talk about that.

Team SA faced one final challenge while travelling from Toowoomba to Adelaide via Melbourne. Melbourne Airport. Or, more specifically, a late flight into T4 and an on time flight at T1: leaving 15 minutes after we disembarked. There’s something beautifully refreshing about a terror sprint through an almost entirely empty airport, upstairs, through security, and downstairs. All five of us made it through in a sub 10 minute dash. I know you won’t believe me when I say we got through security in about a minute, but it’s true. We came home Friday night as a successful, happy, and fortunately pretty fit, team. Our checked luggage, however, did not.


My journey with the soil judging team continues as one of friendship. And that’s that.