Inside The World Of...competitive Soil Judging (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Inside The World Of... Competitive Soil Judging

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week our theme is Rookies. We've already talked with a rookie cop, rookie activists, even rookies in the post-high school grownup world. And in just a bit we're going to be some rookies in the world of female football. First though, we're going to turn to a different sort of competitive activity, soil judging. Never heard of it? That's all right. Neither had we until we found out that the best college soil judging team in the nation resides right here in our region.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:37
Turns out that earlier this year a group of students from the University of Maryland nabbed the winning trophy in the National Collegiate Soil Judging contest. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson has the story.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:49
You might think of College Park, Md. as a basketball town. You could also make a case for women's lacrosse. That program has won 10 national championships. Associate professor of soil science, Brian Needelman is a bit a of a contrarian, however.

MR. BRIAN NEEDELMAN

00:01:05
Yeah, let me tell you, this is a soil judging town. I was also -- when I was a student at Penn State we won a national soil judging contest. And the reaction here at Maryland was at least 10 times bigger.

WILSON

00:01:15
Needelman coached this year's soil judging team. And he's only half joking about that reaction. Upon returning from Wisconsin as victors, his team got a small parade on Maryland Day, lunch with the dean, and even a Twitter mention from Gov. Martin O'Malley.

NEEDELMAN

00:01:30
This is a soil judging town. People may not know it, but it's true, we're pretty serious about it around here.

WILSON

00:01:36
So what, exactly, is soil judging?

NEEDELMAN

00:01:39
So students spend about an hour in a soil pit about 5 feet deep. The first step is to identify the different layers, what we call horizons and describe their various characteristics, color, texture, structure, or wetness features. And then it gets a lot into geology. You need to really describe the history of that site, and how the soil formed over that history.

WILSON

00:01:59
So the name soil judging is pretty self-explanatory, but in practice, it's anything but simple. And the only way to get a sense of that is to, well, you guessed it, get your hands dirty.

WILSON

00:02:14
Maryland senior, Ryan Adams, is taking me out to a soil pit on U.S. Department of Agriculture farmland not far from campus. This pit is where rookie team members first learn the rules of soil judging. And right now, it's full of water from recent rainstorms. So before we hop in, Adams pumps some of it out so we can actually see the dirt.

MR. RYAN ADAMS

00:02:35
The top is where things are decomposing, leaves are falling, carbon's kind of accumulating in this top layer, and so it has a noticeably darker color than the rest. And once you start to get down a little lower, your carbon percentages start to decrease and you start to get soils that are dominated mostly by minerals.

WILSON

00:02:53
In competition, contestants get scored on observations just like those, and their notes are then compared to a master sheet to see how much of the essential information they got after one hour. Brian Needelman says the big difference between rookie and veteran soil judges is speed.

NEEDELMAN

00:03:11
There's always this big difference where the rookies -- it's a huge time pressure. So there's a lot of stress involved with that.

WILSON

00:03:20
But there's also built-in stress relief. In fact, if you need a stress ball to hold onto you just grab a hunk of clay and knead it in your hand. That's an actual soil judging technique, called texturing. An old-fashioned, but fairly full-proof way for soil judgers to tell if they're dealing with sandy, silty or clay soil, simply by feeling for the size of the particles. For Jack Wang, who started college as a biology major, the hands-on science was a change from his work in sterile laboratories.

MR. JACK WANG

00:03:52
When they told me, oh, yeah, you can just make a ball and then put it in your hand feel it and you can tell the percentage of clay, I was like, doesn't that take kind of years of practice or something? But I eventually got taught different techniques of detecting sand percentages and clay percentages just based on, like, experience after awhile.

WILSON

00:04:10
And that experience comes through practice, lots of practice. The team travels to competition sites days ahead of time to get to know the region's soil characteristics before the big day.

NEEDELMAN

00:04:21
The longest period of time is the practicing. So, for example, at the national contest, we practiced at 23 pits, before we had to do the 5 pits that were actually on the contest.

WILSON

00:04:31
And both practice and competition happen rain or shine. In fact, in Wisconsin, at the National Collegiate Soil Judging contest students even had to contend with hail.

WANG

00:04:43
This started with icy rain. And we're just like, oh, yeah, it's just rain. This is Wisconsin, it's supposed to be cold. And then when it started hailing, we just started laughing. And then, you know, that was just kind of funny. It's like it cannot get any worse than this.

WILSON

00:04:54
And of course it didn't get worse. It got a lot better. Maryland came home with the title, after all. It was Heather Hall's first year on the team.

MS. HEATHER HALL

00:05:03
I just was like, "I can't believe this." Like, not to be like that, but it just felt too easy. Like, for me, it just felt like, wow, I can't believe this is happening.

WILSON

00:05:13
And Coach Needelman says he hopes the newfound attention on his team will allow more people to see why soil judging is the perfect mix of the sloppy and the scientific.

NEEDELMAN

00:05:24
There's something about soils that when you learn a little bit about it, a lot of people go off the deep end. And end up wanting to really devote their lives, careers to it.

WILSON

00:05:33
Ryan Adams hopes he can find a way to make it to the national soil judging contest every year, even after he graduates with his degree in environmental science. He says, believe it or not, it only takes a few dirty sessions in a soil pit before you start to see soil as something beautiful.

ADAMS

00:05:50
Ultimately, you're looking at the medium which supports terrestrial life. I mean, without soil none of that would be possible. And so if you can't find beauty in that, certainly I don't know too many other places where you would be able to find beauty. It's why we're here.

WILSON

00:06:07
And that is the dirt on soil judging. I'm Jonathan Wilson.

SHEIR

00:06:18
If you want to get your own hands dirty, you can learn more about soil judging and soil science on our website, metroconnection.org.
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