Picture a sunny morning in mid-to-late October. It’s just brisk enough that you need a jacket, but you can probably shed it by noon. Hundreds of kids are gathered in a soybean stubble field, and they’re going form soil pit to soil pit, trying their luck at identifying soil, seeing what they can learn. Soil scientists are sanding by in case they need to explain how a glacier moved in just s certain way to form a particular type of soil, or how an old lakebed became a heavy but poorly drained clay-based soil today.
That’s the ideal situation for soil judging. It’s more fun than a football game for me as an ex-judger, and now as a coach. Nearly 100 teams and 400 kids compete each year. This year’s version was Saturday, Oct. 31, near New Paris, in southern Elkhart County. Much of the real education goes on during Friday, when soil scientists open and man 14-16 pits to let teams practice, and get a good feel for what soils of the area are like. The contest rotates from northern to southern and then central Indiana to give a high schooler a fair shake over the course of this high school career. Indiana soils vary from bedrocks and fragipans in the south to till and loess, wind-blown loams in central Indiana, to plenty of outwash and flood plain soils in northern Indiana.
So what about that perfect day? Friday and Saturday were more like the perfect storm. Rain began before dawn on Friday, and became heavy by afternoon. I know. I was assisting Charity Keffaber, the Franklin FFA advisor, coach a senior and junior soil judging team. Juniors are in middles school grades. However, in soils, they play like the big boys and girls, judging the exact same holes under the exact same rules.
The morning didn’t go bad, although Mike Morehouse, a local farmer who supplied land for practice sites, was busy throwing straw in some holes and pumping out others. He even helped pump holes for the actual contest Saturday morning, after an all-night rain, even though the holes weren’t located on land he farms. That’s dedication.
The real thank yous and praise go to Gary Steinhardt, Purdue University Extension soils specialist and dean of high school and collegiate soil judging in Indiana, and his support team of NRCS and independent soil scientists, plus help from the Purdue staff, in putting together what was hands down the most educational practice day in years.
Our students saw sand, to clay, poor drainage to well, pure sand to plenty of outwash, all in one day. They saw flood plains with limiting layers, glacial till that reacted to hydrochloric acid, meaning it’s high in calcium content, usually a sign that the soil is very dense. In at least one hole, it wasn’t dense, it was just weathered. Some of these things even I hadn’t seen before,
Perhaps the capper was the trip into the gravel pit near New Paris. Years ago there was a hole in the glacial ice, and gravel washed in, stratified and formed a cone-shaped deposit. The scientists call it a glacial kame, a quirk of nature. The kids called it ‘cool.’ With the gravel bluffs rising 30 feet above the bus, and driving within an actual gravel pit, I kidded out driver that we must be on the Magic School bus and she must be Mrs. Frizzle. If that doesn’t ring a bell, pick up a kid’s book or kid songs from the ‘90’s, and I think you’ll get the drift.
Too bad the weather didn’t cooperate. But our team members pitched in, with the junior members literally falling into the last few practice holes to get soil samples for the rest of us, older, wiser folks, ha!, who stood on the banks.
Sometimes when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Thanks to Dr, Steinhardt and his crew for an education in soils, history and soil formation that kids just couldn’t appreciate out of books. It wasn’t a bad lesson for an old ag writer and ex-farmer, either.
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