2008-04-24 / Front Page

U.S. Soil Olympics come to Jamestown

By Rudd Hall

Brook Fahquist, from Utah State University, participated in the soil judging contest held at the Jamestown Community Farm last week. Photo by Rudd Hall Brook Fahquist, from Utah State University, participated in the soil judging contest held at the Jamestown Community Farm last week. Photo by Rudd Hall Earlier this month, from April 11 to 18, more than 100 students from 21 universities across the country came to Jamestown to compete in the "Soil Olympics."

This sort of intercollegiate competition has been going on since the sixties, but this year marks the first time it has been held in New England. Although it may seem unusual this contest occurs yearly in colleges across the county. It works like any other collegiate competition in that schools first compete at the regional level in the fall and the top teams go on the national level competition, which is held in the spring.

The question must be asked: "how exactly does a soil competition take place?"

During the contest students have a few days to prepare and are asked to descend into a "practice pit," which is nothing but a hole dug out in the ground large enough to fit four to five students. Here, they get a chance to study the soil layers and get a feel for the soil they'll be dealing with. For many, who range from Kentucky to Oregon, it's their first hands-on encounter with a different soil type. The judges have already been in the pit days before and have done their own analysis, marking off a "no touch zone" which students are asked to work around. The students have two to three days in the practice pit before the individual and more importantly, the group competition, which is held on Friday. During the competition students are asked to record soil horizons which are the different levels of soil, how much sand, silt, and clay the soil contains, what is the geology of the area, as well as what is the best use for the land based on its soil. The student's soil descriptions are scored and the team that comes closest to the descriptions of the judges wins the competition.

University of Rhode Island professor Mark Stoltz from the Department of Natural Resources Sciences was the man behind getting this competition to Jamestown this year; but unfortunately, the Rhody Rams couldn't compete, as they are the hosting university, however, they did place third in this year's regional event. Jamestown's Community Farm was the host site for the competition, and the town went the extra mile and made a backhoe available to dig the pits, but, "They will be filled back in. I'll see to that," said Bob Sutton, the farm's manager.

Jamestown was chosen due to the unique soils located in town. Gardeners may notice how black Jamestown's soil is due to its high carbon level, which makes it extremely fertile and perfect for raising crops. "It's some of the best agricultural soil in the state," said Jim Turenne, assistant state soil scientist.

Turenne, a Jamestown native, works for the United States Department of Agriculture, who also helped sponsor the competition.

So the hundreds of students take the week off school to travel and compete. They place a heavy burden on themselves though, since the event takes place during the college session and not during spring break. Students have to check with their professors and inform them they will not be attending classes that week and so have a week's worth of catching up, which is a good indication of their dedication. When asked what they felt was the main reason they were here, California Polytech students said in unison, "Winning the competition!" But they do come for more experience as many wish to pursue careers as soil scientists, and, "the US Department of Agriculture is hiring on the spot," Turenne said.

Soil science is crucial because before soil can be used efficiently ,it needs to be identified and characterized so one can either run a farm or set up a septic system. The end goal of the competition is classifying soils so the landscape can be used effectively.

Kansas State won the competition, Virginia Tech took second place, and University of Maryland finished in third place.

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