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Inside The World Of... Competitive Soil Judging

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Ryan Adams, Jack Wang, and Heather Hall are members of the University of MD's champion soil judging team.
Jonathan Wilson
Ryan Adams, Jack Wang, and Heather Hall are members of the University of MD's champion soil judging team.

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

"Let me tell you: this is a soil judging town," Needelman says. "When I was student at Penn State we also won a national soil judging contest, and the reaction here at Maryland was at least 10 times bigger."

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.

"This is a soil judging town," he says again with a smile. "People may not know it, but we're pretty serious about it around here."

So what, exactly, is soil judging?

"Students spend about an hour in a soil pit about 5 feet deep," Needelman explains. "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."

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.

The team travels to competition sites days ahead of time to get to know the region's soil characteristics before the big day.

Maryland brought the title home in Heather Hall's first year on the team.

"I just was like, 'I can't believe this!' — not to be like that, but for me it felt too easy," Hall says. "I felt like, 'I can't believe this is happening.'"

Team member 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 sessions in a soil pit before you start to see soil as something beautiful.

"Ultimately, you're looking at the medium that supports terrestrial life," Adams says. "If you can't find beauty in that, I don't know too many other places where you would be able to find beauty. It's why we're here."

[Music: "Digging in the Dirt" by Tufts Beelzebubs from Pandemonium]


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