Soil's Secrets

Northstar Notes

We might know a lot about the soil under our feet today, yet chances are that most folks don't know the evolution of soils.

Published on: January 3, 2013

Farmers know a lot about soil. They study it, test it, nurture it, plant in it, drain and tile it, protect it.

Yet there is more to learn about this importance substance that we so often take for granted. We might know a lot about the soil under our feet today, yet chances are that most folks don't know the evolution of soils, the various soil types in the U.S. and around the world, and the importance of soils in everyday lives.

Thanks to a traveling Smithsonian exhibit, Minnesotans can learn more about this precious resource by visiting the "Dig It! The Secrets of Soil" exhibit at the University of Minnesota Bell Museum.

I attended a special Thursday night session last month led by U-M soil scientist Terry Cooper. He walked us around this special display, organized by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Along with the huge color displays and interactive videos is the impressive 'Hall of Soils'—huge monoliths of every soil in the U.S. Each soil profile, about three feet high and weighing at least 30 pounds, is encased in glass and displayed at eye level along three display walls. This alone is worth the price of admission—to see this collection of unique soils from across the U.S.

Soils Secrets
Soil's Secrets

The timing for this display, which is at the Bell through July, couldn't be better. The U-M Soil, Water and Climate is celebrating its 100th birthday this year with an open house and reception in April, a local tour with the Minnesota Association of Professional Soil Scientists in July, and a series of special lectures throughout the year.

The July tour includes a stop at Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista, which is a part of the Three Rivers Park District. Here, soil scientists unearthed the huge Lester soil sample for the Smithsonian exhibit.

Lester soil is found in more than 600,000 acres across the state, from western Hennepin County to the Iowa border. It is unique to the state—this deep, well-drained soil that is less affected by drought.

"Lester was chosen [as the state soil] because it has properties of prairie and forest, and it's not the best soil in Minnesota," Cooper said. "Like all Minnesotans, though, it is slightly above average." The name Lester comes from the town of Lester Prairie, who was settled by European immigrants named Lester.

Soils Secrets
Soil's Secrets

Last April, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill recognizing Lester as the official state soil of Minnesota.

Overall, the state has about 1,500 soil types, Cooper added.

In addition to the display, the museum continues to host an occasional "Gallery Conversation."

Thursday, January 3, at 5:30 p.m., you have the chance to hear Caryl Radatz with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. She is the State Soil Scientist for Minnesota as well as the Soil Survey Regional Director for Major Land Resource Area Region 10. During her gallery conversation, Caryl will discuss the history of the National Cooperative Soil Survey program founded in 1899, and may even include a primer on soil taxonomy. She will be joined by some of her colleagues, too.

And on Saturday, January 19, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m., check out "Soil Saturday: Playing with Sand." This is one of several Saturdays where youngsters and adults can participate in hands-on activity days. Make a miniature sand sculpture to take home, explore sand under a microscope, see artist creations made from sand, and learn about more about this this not-so-ordinary-after-all particle.

The Bell Museum is located at the corner of University Ave. & 17th Ave. SE in Minneapolis, on the University of Minnesota campus. Admission is adults, $6; youths age 3-17 & seniors, $4; children under 3, free. There is free admission for all visitors on Sundays.

Museum hours are Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; first Thursday of the month, open until 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.; closed Monday.

To learn more, please visit the Bell website.