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It's Mud Madness As Northern Illinois University Hosts National Soil Testing Competition

While you can’t break this bracket, the competition does get dirty.

It’s the 2017 National Collegiate Soils Contest, sponsored by the American Society of Agronomy and hosted this year by Northern Illinois University.

Two dozen college teams are taking to practice pits to test soil for categories that will be judged on Thursday.

On a windy Tuesday near Malta, Ill., three teams practiced in a pit almost deep and wide enough to fit a coffin. But there’s nothing morbid about this contest— it’s done to show the different levels or “horizons” of the soil.

Brittany Hajduga, from Delaware Valley University in Pennsylvania, says that’s important because it helps her identify what makes each sample so special.

“Color, texture, whether there are concentrations or depletions of different minerals, or if the land is suitable for basements or roads,” Hajduga said.

Heather Stellabott says it’s an added educational experience to learn how people who live here interact with the soil every day.

“The fact that they explained to us that they drained a lot of the water here so they could farm it was really interesting,” Stellabott said.

These "soil sommeliers" plop down samples from each level into actual muffin tins to examine them more closely. If you actually baked these muddy confections, they would range in color from tan-ish tarts to coffee-colored clods.

The clumps are spritzed with water and then molded like dough. The students use their fingers to spread the softened soil into what they call “ribbons.” The longer the ribbon, the more clay is found in the chunk. They jot down their findings on a paper grid.

Credit Jenna Dooley
The testing grid

Late April means the ground in northern Illinois is pretty sloppy and wet, but Clayton Bucher says that is all part of the experience of having the competition rotate around the country.

“We are usually not used to seeing soils that are filled with water like these,” Bucher said. "That’s unique here. It’s fun to have to slosh around in a foot of water."

His teammate, Alexandra Schmidt, says she’s been surprised by her findings so far.

“The glaciation that occurred in this area just does crazy things to the soil,” Schmidt said. "We are sitting here but, maybe a hundred yards, there is another team; and that soil could be completely different just because of what happened with the glaciers."

In addition to the teams by school, there is an individual competition.

“There will be three pits open for the individual contest," Schmidt explained. "We rotate in and out, and we are all just trying to identify what we see and they will compare our scores to professionals. We are ranked on our correctness, and someone is going to win.”

Credit Jenna Dooley

Galen Swanson, from South Dakota State University, says he plans to use the skill as a farmer.

“Now that we are in an area where precision is a huge thing,” Swanson said, "if we can understand what is four feet below us, we can manage that a lot better than the last 50 to 100 years."

Jim Thompson, who coaches the team from West Virginia, has been to more than a dozen competitions around the United States over the years.

“We as coaches have the benefit of having seen a lot more soils,” he said, "and we try to give the context to what they are seeing this pit and the next pit and the next pit."

There may not be rabid fans in the stands or buzzer beaters for this college event, but it may give you a newfound appreciation for what’s under your sneakers.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.