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National Competition Digs In To Central Oregon Dirt

Today in Central Oregon students from more than 20 universities around the country will be rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty as part of the 51st annual National Collegiate Soil Judging Contest.

This year’s competition is being hosted by Oregon State University’s Cascades Campus. 

Competitors will be racing against the clock to determine the kings and queens of the soil pit.

The head of OSU Cascade’s Natural Resources program seems remarkably relaxed for a guy about to host his first national soil competition.  But then again, most of the heavy lifting is already done, specifically the digging of the 23 soil pits. 

His name is Dr. Ron Reuter, but his students and colleagues call by a different name.

Ron Reuter: “I am Doctor Dirt, yeah.  It’s a name that stuck.  It’s hard to wash off.”

To see what competitive soil judging is all about, Reuter takes me to one the practice pits located in Sisters Oregon. This pit is called BW Llamas.  The BW stands for Best Western, the name of the motel just yards away.  The llamas, as you might guess are just beyond that.

In team competition, students get three trips into the pit as well as time outside the hole to evaluate their samples. 

Ron Reuter: “And their job is to get into the pit and try to match as close as possible what me and the other judges or the other organizers have gone in and said we saw in that soil”

David Nogueras / OPB

Reuter says it’s easiest just to show me. So he leads me down a steep slope into the hole. Standing at the bottom the ground is about chin-high.

Ron Reuter: “Sound of climbing into pit”  “So what we’re trying to get these students to do here is…a lot of times the soil judgers especially when they’re used to look at one type, they want to get in and pick away at it and get a bunch of sample.  And for out here because we’re such a new landscape, a young landscape it’s really important for them to look around and figure out the whole story.”

Students piece together that story by taking physical, visual and chemical measurements. But one of the most indispensible tools for a soil scientist is his or her knife. Reuter says the student uses it to poke and prod the soil and what they feel can say a lot about what’s going on under the ground.

David Nogueras / OPB

Ron Reuter: “Like up where the roots and such are. The roots are always mixing.  There’s always biotic activity going on.  You’ve got earthworms.  You’ve got beetles. You’ve got ants that are always stirring it.   And so it keeps a lot of airspace in there.  And so your knife will slide in and out really easy.    And then below that where the roots aren’t very active and you’re putting your knife in it will start to get harder and harder to put your knife in.” 

Janis Boettinger: “You ready?  Go.  Five minutes in….”

Professor Janis Boettinger sends her team from Utah State University into the pit.

They immediately start poking at the sides with their knives.  One of their tasks is to identify at least 4 specific layers of soil. A tape measure hanging from ground level gives them a distance to the bottom of the pit in centimeters.

Students: “The second is probably around…43?  43 I totally agree with that.  And if you notice we also have a break in the root.”

Senior Shannon Babb is getting her degree in Watershed and Earth Systems. Her grayish brown shirt pledges her allegiance to the USU soil team. She joined the team her freshman year. And now, she regularly pulls her car to the side of the road to examine soil cuts made by bisecting freeways.

Babb too has a knife — military survival type. She says it was a Christmas present from her dad.

Shannon Babb: “When he was buying it they were like really impressed that he was buying this knife for his child and then they were pretty shocked when they found out I was a girl and that I wasn’t a Scout.”

Babb says she wants to eventually get her PhD in soil science. 

Once the exclusive domain of commercial agriculture soil science has expanded to include organic farming, environmental remediation and even structural engineering.

David Nogueras / OPB

But despite a growing number of jobs in the field, many state schools with soil study programs are cutting back.

Utah State University recently told its faculty that cuts were on the way. 

Professor Janis Boettinger says discussions have already begun about consolidating programs.

Still she remains optimistic.  She says contests like these are a great way to get students involved who might just be in the class to fulfill requirement.

Janis Boettinger: “If we can keep students, you know, attract them to soil science, get them excited and out in the field with the soils team and coming to these regional and now national soils contests that we’ll always have a feeder program for out graduate research as well as the jobs that are out there.”

There is a prize for the contest.  The top non-graduating student will win a summer internship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

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