UNL student headed to Scotland to compete in soil judging contest

UNL soil judging team

UNL Soil Judging Team member Kennadi Griffis describes redoximorphic features in a soil pit. The junior will be judging soil in Scotland this week after placing first in a regional contest.

Kennadi Griffis has grown used to the question.

The soon-to-be junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is often asked about the box of soil samples she keeps in her bedroom, or the long hours she spends scraping around the bottom of a shallow pit.

“I get the question a lot from my family and friends about what I spend all my time doing,” Griffis said.

A member of UNL’s Soil Judging Team, Griffis said the simple answer is analyzing and describing the ground under the landscape in any given place.

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UNL soil judging team

The UNL Soil Judging team — Charlotte Brockman (from left), Kennadi Griffis, Mason Rutgers and Mason Schumacher — review their answers on a group scorecard.

The longer answer explains how Griffis quickly became one of the top collegiate soil judges in the U.S., as well as why she’ll spend the end of her summer vacation in Scotland beginning this week.

It starts with an introductory soil evaluation course — a requirement for environmental science majors at UNL — that put Griffis in a one-on-one meeting with Becky Young, one of the coaches of the university’s Soil Judging Team.

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Young urged Griffis to join, Griffis agreed, and soon the Lincoln High graduate found herself at the bottom of practice pits on East Campus and elsewhere around Lincoln learning what a soil judge is by doing it.

There, she learned how to observe the topography of a site and what clues that might give to the soil underneath, as well as how to take stock of the color of the soil, its structure and texture, and study how quickly water can run through it.

The Soil Judging Team, while serving as a field experience for an advanced soil class, has the goal of producing well-rounded soil judges, but members will often begin to specialize in a particular discipline.

Some have the eye to precisely identify the color, and others have the right words to describe the site in technical terms, while Griffis has developed a talent for “texturing,” or determining the composition of the soil sample.

It’s part art, part science, requiring judges to “calibrate” themselves through repetition to determine how much sand, silt and clay is in each sample by sight and feel, Griffis said.

UNL soil judging team

UNL team member Kennadi Griffis of Lincoln will be judging soil in Scotland this week after placing first in a regional contest.

“You have to get some soil in your hand, use a spray bottle to wet it and roll it into a ball,” she explained. “Then, you form it into a ribbon, and based on how long you can make that ribbon, you can tell how much clay there is.”

A sample that falls apart quickly might contain more sand, while a sample that holds together could have a higher clay composition, Griffis said.

All of the soil characteristics, recorded by the team over the course of an hour, are entered onto a scorecard to be submitted at the end of the contest, where it is compared to the official’s record of the site.

Griffis said UNL’s team has developed its own process, reconvening near the deadline to run through all of the information it had compiled in order to ensure each of the individual pieces fit together.

“We want to tell the story of the site,” she said. “Does it all make sense in telling the story of how the soil formed over the last 12,000 years?”

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Judith Turk, a pedologist in UNL’s School of Natural Resources who coaches the Soil Judging Team along with Young, said the goal of the team, as well as the underlying class, is helping students understand “the big picture.”

Along with polishing their technical skills and fostering a collaborative environment among the team, Turk said the goal of the Soil Judging Team is to help students connect their location on the landscape to what kind of soil they would expect to find there.

“The best soil judges are the ones who can do that, and I think that’s something Kennadi is really good at,” said Turk, a former collegiate soil judge herself, who has helped coach the UNL team since 2017.

Griffis has the array of skills that led her to beat nearly 60 competitors at her first competition last fall in Minnesota, claiming top individual honors at the North Central Regional Soil Judging Contest.

The win was unexpected, Griffis said, who added she had joined the Soil Judging Team to pad her resume and spend time with friends who have a shared interest.

“I just went to have fun and when they called my name I just started crying,” Griffis said.

Then, in April, she finished in the top five at the National Collegiate Soils Contest hosted by the Ohio State University, which opened up the opportunity for her to compete as part of Team USA at the International Soil Judging Contest in Stirling, Scotland, July 26-31.

Griffis, along with competitors from Virginia Tech, North Carolina State and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, will judge Spodosols — colorful forest soils found at the “Gateway to the Highlands.”

UNL soil judging team

The UNL Soil Judging Team at a practice pit in Ohio.

Turk said Griffis is the first UNL student who has competed at the international event, which is hosted every four years (the 2018 contest was held in Brazil).

“Usually students who place first are the ones who have been doing it for a few years,” Turk said. “The more contests you go to and the more soils you experience, the more you’re going to learn and better you’ll be.”

Griffis, who has plans to become an ecologist, which will let her continue to get her hands dirty in the field, is working to keep her skills sharp ahead of the international competition.

She’s been going through the box of samples in her bedroom, writing out her observations and comparing them to the official readout included with each before she departs for Scotland.

When she arrives, Griffis will work on a competition plan with her teammates, who are all also at their first international competition.

“No one on my team has done this before, so we’ll have to figure it all out when we get there,” she said.

But there will be other benefits to the conference, according to Turk. Griffis will have an opportunity to learn from other students and coaches, as well as soil science professionals and others who have worked in the field for decades.

“Just her having this experience is a big thing,” Turk said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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