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Members of the Pitt-Johnstown soil judging team inspect a soil pit during the group competition at the Northeastern regional soil judging competition.

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — A dozen college students from Delaware Valley, Bloomsburg and the University of Maryland sat quietly on plastic buckets, scribbling away about what they had seen.

The unseasonably warm morning at the Rodale Institute’s research farm was pastoral enough. But at a casual glance, this site — a rectangular pit wedged between a farm lane, a high-density orchard block and a line of trees — seemed hardly worthy of notice, certainly not an hour’s worth of observation and analysis.

Still, in the chest-deep pit, the students from each school took turns peering intently at the walls of the pit. They knocked off pieces with hammers or cut from the sides of the pit with wide hori-hori knives, which are stamped with graduation marks for measuring.

The students crumbled the pieces in their hands, squirted them with water and shook them through sieves.

They had gathered to consider one of the most mundane yet complex things upon which agriculture, and therefore civilization, depends — the soil.

The Oct. 15 Northeast Regional Soil Judging Contest involved 63 students representing eight universities.

The top four schools — the overall champion University of Rhode Island, followed by DelVal, the University of Maryland and the University of Delaware — will advance next spring to the national competition, hosted by Ohio State.

Mitchel Johnson of DelVal was the top individual, and Penn State finished first in the group competition, followed by DelVal and Rhode Island.

In a soil judging competition, students are asked to describe a number of qualities of the soil, such as the texture in each horizon, and what the land could be used for.

“This really can’t be replicated by technology. You still need to have that physical skill. You still need to feel it in your fingers and understand what’s going on in the soils,” said Steve Dadio, DelVal’s soil judging coach who scored this year’s competition.

The competition involved three pits that students judged as individuals, one hour per pit, and two pits judged in teams for 45 minutes each.

Rachel Fosmark, a senior at DelVal, got into soil judging through a friend.

“She just wouldn’t stop talking about it, so I figured I’d give it a shot,” Fosmark said.

Fosmark said she particularly likes the group competition because everyone has a slightly different take on the color or texture of the soil, and she enjoys working out a consensus.

Fosmark said she was nervous working her first pit of the competition, but that feeling soon wore off.

“Everyone here is really relaxed and calm,” she said.

Indeed, Dadio and a competitor from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown took a moment during the timed event to banter about their schools’ mascots.

Pitt-Johnstown is one of several universities in the competition that are neither land-grant nor ag schools. Many soil judging competitors are studying environmental science, Dadio said.

Though colleges can hold the soil judging contest on their own land, as DelVal did when it hosted nationals in 2014, Dadio wanted to try something different for DelVal’s turn at organizing the regional contest in 2020.

So he approached the Rodale Institute in 2018 about hosting the competition on its research farm, known for the long-running farming systems trial. After a year’s postponement because of the pandemic, the institute became the first certified organic site to host the regional competition.

To avoid disrupting Rodale’s experiments, the soil pits were not dug in active research plots; instead, the sites included a ridge, a field headland, and the edge of a pasture.

Still, between the competition and the two days of practice preceding it, the teams looked at soils derived from limestone, shale and Pre-Illinoian glacial till — the latter formed in a long-ago ice age and common in the Lehigh Valley.

“We like showing off different things,” Dadio said.

The practice sessions allowed out-of-state competitors such as Carel Abboud, a senior environmental science major at Stockton University, to adjust to the soils they might see during the actual competition.

Rodale sits in a rich agricultural zone south of Blue Mountain, while Stockton sits on New Jersey’s coastal plain, between Atlantic City and the sprawling Pine Barrens preserve.

“It’s almost flipped in terms of sand and clay percentages,” with South Jersey soils being sandy and Rodale’s heavy on clay, said Abboud, vice president and co-founder of Stockton’s soil judging club.

DelVal is only about 35 miles from Rodale, but Fosmark also noticed that her on-campus soil pits had more sand than the ones at the competition. That’s understandable because Doylestown, home to DelVal’s campus, is at a lower elevation than Rodale, she said.

And even the hour’s drive between those two sites can be overkill to see variation in soils.

“You can walk 20 feet that way, and it will look totally different,” said Lindsey Kerstetter, an environmental geoscience major from Bloomsburg University.

It’s only logical, then, that the competition emphasizes up-close evaluation of the soil.

“The most important thing is to dig a hole to know what you have,” Dadio said.

After all, the nature of the soil in a particular place has major practical implications. It determines how many bushels of corn or beans can grow there, and whether a house built on a site can have a basement and a septic system.

Kerstetter said environmental science needs to address the well-being of both the environment and humans. It’s easy to say “Don’t farm that land,” but agriculture is needed to produce food for a growing population.

“What I’ve gotten from soils is that there’s a hundred solutions to the same problem,” she said. “You can manage that field several different ways and get different outputs.”

An adjunct faculty member at DelVal, Dadio also works as a consulting soil scientist. He identifies wetlands, studies soil conditions for stormwater management, and does a little agronomic work.

“This is a tangible skill that you can get a job from,” he said.

Some of Dadio’s former students work for conservation districts, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and private industry.

One of his former students is Heather Stellabott, who served as a monitor for one of the pits in the individual competition.

Stellabott, who now works for NRCS in Lebanon County, said she was surprised to see the DelVal team carrying tools in a five-gallon bucket she had used when she was a student a few years earlier.

Granted, this was not just any bucket. Stellabott had whimsically decorated it with stickers of animated characters.

After she graduates in December, Abboud plans to work as a soil scientist, perhaps delineating wetlands, which she helped do as an intern at an engineering firm.

While the soil judging questions about basements and septic systems deal foremost with feasibility, wetland identification raises major questions of legality.

Wetlands are protected from certain types of agricultural and construction activities. That’s because wetlands support unique plant and animal species, and they serve as a buffer against flooding. But many have been drained, removing those benefits.

“We’re looking to preserve the wetlands that we still do have and even further go into wetland mitigation to get some back,” Abboud said.

Kerstetter, who hopes to earn a doctorate and continue soil research, said soil judging has developed her abilities in ways that classroom learning cannot.

She has also found the competition to be a good way to network with others in her field.

“The soil community is tight knit, and you need to know everybody, and you need to build your skills off of others,” she said.

 

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