Getting the Dirt On The World Of Competitive Soil Judging

8:57 minutes

four young soil scientists stand in a soil pit with grass above and rocks around them. they are smiling with their arms up in the air in various ways, and look extremely joyful
All four members of the winning Team Australia. From left to right: Jay Ryan, Dr. Chloe Lai, Dr. Bhawana Bhatta Kaudal, and Clare Tallamy. Credit: Clare Tallamy

If you’re looking for a new sport or hobby to try, forget about rock climbing or kitesurfing. If you don’t mind getting a bit dirty, consider competitive soil judging—a contest in which contestants work to best analyze, identify, and describe the layers of soil in a 5-foot-deep trench dug into a field. People can compete either individually, or in a team format, where different members of the team work to describe the soil’s characteristics—from color, to grain size, to how it interacts with water.

Clare Tallamy, a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in environmental science, recently won the individual competition in an international soil judging contest held in Scotland as part of the 2022 World Congress of Soil Science. She joins Ira to describe how soil judging works, gives an introduction to soil taxonomy, and explains the practical significance of being able to excel at judging a sample of soil.

two women kneel in a muddy, dug-up area and are looking together at a soil pit, deep in concentration
Clare Tallamy and Kate Johnson of Virginia Tech take a step back to look at the soil pit. Credit: Jaclyn Fiola
two imaged collaged together: on the left is a specialized soil measuring tape over a cross section of soil; on the right, five people kneel in a soil trench and examine a wall of soil together
Left: Cross section of a soil pit. Right: Dr. John Galbraith (holding knife) teaching members of the Virginia Tech Soil Judging team how to look for soil structure. Credit: Jaclyn Fiola
a group of fourteen people gathered in front of a backhoe machine, smiling at the camera with their clothes covered in soil
The 2022 National Soil Judging Championship team, posing on a backhoe machine used to dig the soil pits. Credit: Jaclyn Fiola

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Segment Guests

Clare Tallamy

Clare Tallamy is the individual winner of the International Soil Judging Contest and a senior in Environmental Science at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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