Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thursday - Individual Contest Day

Up early and in the van by 7:40.  We arrive at 8:05 at the NRCS office.  We are followed by Iowa State, South Dakota State, and Nebraska.  The four teams from our region are all early birds.  The 20 van caravan leaves the NRCS building at 8:40 and after a 20 minute delay due to road construction we arrive at the local Boy Scout camp that is about 15 miles from the NRCS office.  The contest gets under way shortly.  Coaches get to take a few pictures but eventually we mosey back to our main building we will use for grading.  We inspect the official score cards and prepare for the first batch of cards.  We have about 25 people grading.  There are 60 cards that arrive in each batch and we are able to finish them in about 30 minutes.  This works our great as we finish each of the four batches and at 4:00 pm the contest is over and the cards are graded.  The students walked back to the sites and listened to a discussion by Jim Thompson the contest organizer and a few other coaches about the reason they called that site a summit.   I guess some of the discussion got a little heated, but I only have that second hand.  The contest sites were a Fragiudult, Hapludult and a shallow Hapludult.  

The students soon arrived and we headed back to town.  We cleaned up and picked up Tom who had a busy day doing calculus homework.  We filled him in on all the adventures that happen when 12 big students enter a soil pit, intent on collecting soil samples from the same area.  At 6 we went back to the Kenyan Restaurant and enjoyed another meal, with some spice tea and Mandazi Bread (Sweet African pastry made from wheat flour then fried in olive oil) or Chapatti, a flat bread.  Tonight I had organic beans and rice with Matoke.  We stopped at the Kroger store on the way home to re-supply the travel snacks for tomorrow night.  We have to leave at 6:50 tomorrow morning so we need to get to bed early for good night’s sleep.

Competition Day!

In my opinion, the best part about the individual competition is that it's now over and we can move on to the team competition where I can contribute and my sillier ideas can be shot down when appropriate. But seriously, it wasn't great but it also wasn't a train wreck; more like a train derailment, like one where nobody dies, but you're seriously delayed on the way to your destination (in this metaphor, the destination is one where I'm not shamed and exiled from the field of soil science). Hopefully we'll get some kick-ass scores on our group sites tomorrow that will boost our overall score.

The tricky thing about the sites was that they weren't profiles we'd seen much of in practice. The vast majority of our practice pits were in agricultural fields, so of course all three of today's would be in forest. And I don't remember seeing any transition horizons during practice, so naturally at least two of three would have them (we didn't stay for the review of the third site because the emotional stress was just too much). And it totally makes sense to choose sites that have extremely narrow horizons when you're going to have approximately 80 people trying to get soil samples from them. Totally.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wednesday is Warmer

Wednesday -  Wow what a different a day makes.. 60 degrees this morning at 7:30 when we correctly departed the motel to go to the organic farm.  WVa established this organic farm a number of  years ago to help the local organic food industry in the state with some research.  We have 5 soil pits in this area.  We did the first one as a team and they were excellent scoring 95%, which is almost impossible.  They next looked at a very channery pit next that had a C above the Cr.  They struggled with the Bw horizon under the Ap, but then so did the official judges.  Next at the footslope position was a perfect example of a Fragiudult.  This soil has a fragipan, or cemented pan at 3 feet.  This pan stops roots and water thus the bottom of the pit had water, so Nora used the barefoot technique to explore this area of soil.  The team again did a great job scoring 91%.  Looking at these soils again after three days of looking sure makes it easier for their descriptions.  We have two sites left after lunch, which we came back to the motel for, as the sites are only 4 miles away.  Before lunch I picked up some new hand towels for the contest tomorrow as our towels are getting pretty dirty.   Lunch was a breakfast sandwich, yogart and canned peaches.  I also cheated and got a Starbucks coffee.
Lunch is over and so is the passing thunderstorm.  We head out to our final two sites.  We work on our next to last to practice individual competition.  The team still is having trouble with rock fragment determination in terms of percent.  They estimate 60 when there is 30 and 20 when there is 80.  Oh well, the official soil judges get to use the official taped area and we don’t, must be the difference.  After this pit where they actually do pretty well, we move on to our last sight and I convince the team they can do this site without touching the soil, based on the fact that they have done 20 other soils that are similar.  The horizons at this site are Ap, Bt, BCt, R.  They do the whole sheet and get it mostly correct basing their decisions on their experience from the past 4 days of practice.  Now hopefully tomorrow they will touch the soil.  The individual team contestants are Blair, Katie, Melissa and Nora.  Tom will be our alternate and not be able to judge the individual sites as alternates did an the regional.  Too many teams here for the alternates to judge.  He will get to participate on Friday in the Team event. 
We arrived at the Banquet with all the other teams and entered the livestock pavilion.  It had a fresh layer of woodchips on the floor so was not too smelly.  After a while we got to go first through the line and found chicken, pulled pork, beef, 3 kinds of beans, potato salad and coleslaw with a blackberry cobbler for dessert.  It was pretty good and did have something for the vegans, though we were not sure about the bean’s broth.  After dinner the band played on and Jim our host introduced important people who helped with the contest.    We soon headed home around 9:30 and did some review of our practice sites for an hour when the coache’s old eyes gave out and he declared it was time for his bed.  Busy day of grading score cards lie ahead. 

More Pics from Last Practice Day!

Check out our super cute sunburns!

What time is it?! Game time! (Almost)

The competition is imminent! We finished our last day of practice sites today, so some texturing practice and last minute studying will be our means of preparation for the individual round of competition tomorrow and the team round on Friday.

Both yesterday's and today's sites went quite well, with scores in the 90% range on a couple team sites and decent scores on some tricky individual sites. For you non-soil-scientists, you would be shocked, astounded, astonished about how vehemently we can argue with the official key on things like Rock Fragment Modifiers, Redoximorphic Features, Parent Materials, etc. It's probably a very entertaining scene to watch, as there's plenty of groaning, deep sighing, shouting, and profanity. I can't really explain the anger that wells up inside when they identify a horizon as channery, when it's obviously extremely channery. It had, like, 80% rock fragments, not 15%! Is this a joke? It's B as in B, S as in S, that's what it is.

At the moment, we're getting all dolled up for tonight's banquet. It's sure to be an evening filled with mediocre barbeque, soil-related humor, plenty of glaring at the team from South Dakota State, our arch rivals from September's regional contest.

For a touch of school spirit, the ladies are rocking some maroon and gold nail polish--Go Gopher Victory!

<=Hand-warmers are the best 99-cent purchase anyone has ever made at Walgreens. EVER.

           Soil judging can be perilous =>
                      (I feel like this picture should be a metaphor for something, but I don't know what.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Tuesday – We are on the road by 7:40 am and easily (only one wrong turn) find our farm where we park on the frosted grass.  So far the only problem was the motel ran out of coffee at breakfast so a Starbucks stop was required.  Our first site was a soil developed in coal mine spoil, all human made.  We did two more sites than had a break for lunch.  The temperature soared up to near 50 by noon, but the cool 30s we started with kept us pretty chilly.  The gloves and hand warmers worked great and some used them as toe warmers in those cold rubber boots.  We did two more sites after lunch, mostly soils with argillics and textures of silt loam or silty clay loam, with a few silty clays thrown in for good measure.  We all got lots of sun and some wind for rosy cheeks.  We got back to the motel around 4:30 and headed to downtown Morgantown for dinner at 5:00.  We found downtown and walked down High Street, the local Thai Restaurant looked inviting so after buying postcards in the Univ. West Virginia gift shot we arrived at 5:50 for dinner.  I figured I would have plenty of time to make my 7:00 pm meeting as there were only 10 tables occupied.  Well the service was slow, the food did not arrive till 6:40, so I was going to be late to the coaches meeting.  The pad Thai I ordered was mild, but the lip burning meal, was almost more than I could master.  I choked it down with a big glass of water.  The others meals looked pretty good, but not exceptional.  I don’t think any of us will get sick.  We left at 6:55 and I arrived at 7:15 for my meeting.  We had trouble finding the room but Tom Rice of Cal Poly helped me out.  We got some information about the contest then the time was spent by a few coaches arguing about the little details.  It seemed the coaches from the East and southeast really like to make lots of minor points about things they saw or did not see.  Anyway, the student’s had dropped me off so I had no way to leave.  I was hoping to catch a ride but the folks who kept walking out were not staying at my motel.  I finally left at 9:30 and called Blair to come and pick me up, which he did.  As it turns out Iowa left just before we did and I could have ridden back with them.  The coaches meeting was mostly disorganized mutterings as the person in charge just wondered from site to site explaining why he did or did not do something, instead of going in an organized manner through each of the soil pits.  That was pretty disappointing, that the items of confusion were not able to be addressed in an organized fashion for all the coaches, not just the few folks from the region who were present for the regional contest, or at least that was my feeling, though I did not stay for the whole mess.  I got home did my e-mail, pictures, blog and went to bed to read the paper.  We arise at 6:30 again tomorrow for the last practice day. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Good the Bad and the Muddy

Soil Judging… the trials and tribulations, the power and the glory, the fire and the fury etc…. For those of you who don’t know what soil judging is and have images of sandboxes floating through your head…you’re sort of on track except for all the tramping around, relieving ourselves in the woods, and you know, science. 
So far, some of our biggest challenges have been finding the soil pits amongst the winding and notably unlabeled West Virginia hill roads (that’s right, supposedly these are hills and not mountains according to our official score cards). Once we manage to locate the practice sites, we have the task (not for the faint of heart) of determining what’s going on with that C possibly Cr or even R layer. For non-soils (that’s your designation now if you don’t do soil science) that refers to what’s at the bottom of that wall of soil possibly getting towards the bedrock or parent material (the stuff that dirt is made from). West Virginia has some seriously flat rocks, the smaller known as channery and the larger known as flaggy. Some are soft, some are hard or anything else in between. Our job is to determine what the rocks are and what percent of the soil horizon (layer) they make up (cobbly? flaggy? channery? very channery?). Much of the stone around here is so soft you can dig it up and texture it (texturing is when we make a ball of soil, squish it around a lot, and say, “hmmm…I think this has 31% clay, and yet it feels so smooth…I think it is a silty clay loam.”). The soft rock makes it difficult to determine where the rock ends and the soil starts. This is also our first time texturing kaolinitic clay (this stuff doesn’t shrink and swell like the smectitic clays in our region). You could throw pots or make bricks with this stuff. Disagreements over clay percentages have riled even the unflappable among us.
Another challenge has been the unfortunately chilly and WINDY weather. The weather channel deceived us, so after today’s gloomy session with five practice pits at an organic blueberry farm we made several crucial stops, (the first was a liquor store) the second was Target to buy much-needed gloves, scarves and extra hoodies (we are expecting 27 degrees F tomorrow morning!). We were fortunate enough to score some hand warmers on clearance at a Walgreens.
There have been some great times like finding a vegetarian-friendly amazing Kenyan restaurant tonight (I even ordered another dish to go), hanging with the team, meeting new soils like Ultisols, and learning from our wise and all-knowing potentate Terry Cooper. Those of you who know me know that there is nothing quite like soil judging bliss…the competition, the learning, the science, the great outdoors, and the skipping a week of classes ;)

A Windy Wake-Up Call

The second day of practice was a winding, windy, whiny, and ultimately, winning one. 

The day saw us getting quite lost on the way to the site. When you come to a fork in the road, do you follow the unmarked street on your left or the unmarked street on your right? Neither; you drive up the unmarked residential instead. Duh. 
West Virginia: Because Street Signs Would Be Too Logical 

Still, the detours did give us plenty of time to enjoy the local aesthetic pleasures, natural and otherwise. 
Pictured: Culture
When we finally arrived at the site, we made the unpleasant discovery that the weather was nowhere near as warm as we'd been anticipating. The morning temps were in the 40s, accompanied by a bitter wind that made texturing, coloring, and everything else associated with soil judging (or being outside, for that matter) unpleasant. A few hours of sunshine raised the temperature a bit, but not much, and the wind even seemed to increase. After three sites, we all had cold, stiff, painful fingers and cranky moods (at least I did).

 The day ended well, though, with an early finish, a great dinner at a nearby Kenyan restaurant, and plenty of time for homework and texturing practice. There's a Freeze Warning on right now (seriously, West Virginia?! Are you for real right now?) and morning temps around 28 are predicted, but preemptive shopping trips for gloves, sweatshirts, and handwarmers should make conditions more tolerable tomorrow. If not, these blog posts will likely be much shorter, as I'll have lost a finger or two to frostbite.
Coach Cooper modeling this year's Official Contest t-shirt

Dinner was  great at Kenyan Café.  Dennis the owner was most friendly and Tella the waitress did a great job. The food served is organic and the many items from Africa hanging on the walls, made us feel like we were on the big continent.    We ordered spiced tea, mochas,  or Kenyan coffee.  The orders were placed for our entre and soon the food arrived in big bowls on top of big plates with cool designs.  The food all smelled delicious and everyone found their meal to their liking.  I had Matoke with Goat Stew.  Matoke is  plantains unripened so they are crunchy (like bananas) and  kale was the green vegetable.  It was very good, after I picked out the bones from the goat.  Goat is a harsher version of lamb, with a hint of venison.  The spices made it slightly hot but not too hot.  Melissa had the Matoke vegetarian, Nora had Chicken Curry, Tom  had the hot spicy  chicken and I forget what Blair and Katie had but they both liked it.  We will most likely return for another try maybe on Thursday evening.  Wednesday is our banquet evening.  The passion of the Kenyan Café is serving unique food and speciality drinks that is healthy.  Kenyan food is not meant to be hot, but blend well with spices according to the menu. 

After dinner we drove to Wallgreens and looked for post cards, none to be found in our fair city.  Guess we will have to find the chamber of commerce to find a post card or the tourist bureau.  However wallgreen’s had sweatshirts for 5 bucks and hand warmers, so that was picked up by the crew for tomorrow morning.   Next it was time to find another way to cool our pallet from the Kenyan spices.  While it was definitely cooling outside, I decided that something else was needed for the tongue.  Now as luck would have it a Gelato store was between Walgreens and the motel.  So we stopped in the strip mall and also discovered an Indian buffet that might provide another evening meal in the future.  The Gelato is from Italy where there are over 370,000 gelato shops while only 1200 in the US.  Gelato began in the Italian Renaissance by Bernardo Buontalenti.  Gelato means frozen in Italian and as Katie pointed out  “Gelisols” are frozen soils.  It has less fat and fewer calories than ice cream and was first served in the Americas in 1770.  We sat and enjoyed our Gelato that came in many flavors and I was the only one to get chocolate. 

It is time to get some grading done, before my eyes close for the evening.  More is being added to my work pile, and if I don’t get some done before Wednesday, even more will be piled up. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

First Day in the Pits!

Today was our first of four practice days working in the soils of West Virginia. It was a day defined, oddly enough, by fashion. As you might have guessed, a collegiate soil judging competition is not exactly on par with the runways of Milan and Paris; it's a world of camo trucker caps and coveralls (a fellow judger was overheard saying she brought her "best flannel" for the occasion).

Even so, there was one accessory today that was in high demand: boots. Rain boots, that is. Rubber, waterproof boots were the item du jour following a night that saw rain fall on a landscape of soils with poor infiltration capacities. For you non-soil-scientists, that translates to puddles. Puddles and mud and even puddles of mud (not Puddles of Mudd, though--different thing). So, a solid pair of galoshes for tromping through the fields and woods was a necessity. And, biased as I am, I would say that the University of Minnesota judgers had the most stylish boots by far. BY FAR. Duct tape and all.

Suitin' up

This mud made THE BEST squelching noises. 

Work it. 
It's not really science until you're covered in mud. 

Sunday March 25 - day one in the foothills of the Applachia Mountains.

Well the breakfast bar is less than desirable, waffles, cereal and a few dead bananas.  The juice and milk seem OK, and the coffee is drinkable.  I had oatmeal with nuts I brought.  The muffin seemed to have been made within the week.   I think Blair had something while the rest slept in as much as possible.  I think I heard them "getting acquainted" till after 1 am.  After breakfast I filled the water bottles and warmed the car to remove all the foggy windows.  We left the parking area at 7:35am and arrived at our destination after only one wrong turn, the WVa Agronomy farm.  We had 5 soils to do , which is a lot for one day and we all worked together on them until the last site when the lack of sleep began to shrink  the able bodied soil judgers thinking caps.  I decided that since this site was similar to the one that was 20 yards away, we just talked about it while we did a texture and color of the Bw.  The official judges described an argillic horizon but when the data came back the clay content did not increase enough so they called it a cambic.  It sure looked and felt like an argillic.  We looked at Hapludults with silt loam and silty clay loam textures and some Hapludalfs with loam and clay textures.   After a long day in the wind my face was pink.  The sun never came out but we did feel the wind.  The hot shower felt .  After I looked at the sites for tomorrow.  I figured out our plan which requires an early leave as we are going 30 miles to a organic blueberry farm for 5 more sites.  It looks like doing 4 will be another possibility.   Off to dinner after all had a nice rest or did some homework and a meeting on campus at 7:00 for our registration for the event.  Have to pay the registration fee of 20 bucks each.