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Champions of the Soil


Southwest Virginia is known for its majestic mountains, but there’s a whole other landscape below the surface.  

The variety of colors and textures in soil and sand actually tell you a lot about their composition and potential uses, if you know how to ‘listen’ to the dirt. 

If you think of soil as just what’s beneath your feet, you’ve really missed out on what all’s going on down there below the surface, says John Galbraith. “It changes colors and it changes textures, which means that th amount of sand silt and clay changes with depth."

Galbraith teaches in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech. He says, “It really becomes fascinating whenever you get to look at a soil below the topsoil. That's where you start to see beautiful, bright yellows and orange and red and mixtures of colors like grays and blues and patterns in the soil.” 

And those colors in the soil correlate to how it can and or cannot be used for building on or other purposes.  “There  are lots of patterns that indicate to us where the water flows in the soil. And, and we can look at those color patterns and estimate where the water table rises too in the spring of the year, each year.”

Galbraith says if your soil has a gray color, it usually means it’s holding too much water. “Around here, orange color or red color would be a sign of a very good soil that should have almost unlimited uses for buildings, crop production, vegetable gardening, hops or vineyards or anything like that.” 

Galbraith coaches the Soil Texturing Team at Virginia Tech.  Yes, that’s a competition held around the country beginning in 1959. 

“It was the most fun that I had in college,” remembers Emily Salkind.  Salkind is a Virginia Tech grad who now works for an environmental consulting firm in Richmond.

“I got involved on the team in 2012, after having taken  classes and gone through the laboratory portion of just the soils intro to soils class and I met a great group of people that were already involved in soil judging. I was really excited and gratified to have been able to participate on a team that we took to competition with 10 girls. There were no boys competing on the team (that year). We just had such a close bond and really loved the time that we dedicated to it.”

Salkind is an expert in what they call ‘soil texturing.’ Let's let her explain what that is.  “So, soil has texture, and you can think about it as clay that feels like a solid lump or a grain of sand. The description that you end up with,based on the percentage components really drive how water moves through it, how air moves through it, how plants are able to survive and the suitability for different land uses with human interaction.”

Salkind has become something of a soil whisperer, seeing and feeling the texture of the dirt.

“You take a sample of it in your hand and moisten it. So, it becomes kind of malleable and you can rub it and feel the grit of the sand. You can try to hear the grit of the sand and I know if I can hear the sand, then I know it's at least 20% sand in that soil sample.”

Salkind is also seeing changes in the soil. “Anecdotally, I think that the last couple of years we have seen some pretty severe swings in weather which has affected construction projects to a greater degree than anybody has ever experienced. And so, in this booming economy with home building just going off the rails, we're definitely seeing a lot more interest in those properties that do have state and federal aid, jurisdictional water features that need to be worked around and avoided and permitted for.”

And that might mean more demand for soil whisperers. Right now, there are over 60 Soil Texturing teams at universities, sponsored by the Soil Society of America. This year, Hokies finished in first place, their sixth win overall.

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech