Catamounts soil judging team preps for big competition

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) It's not the Sweet Sixteen or the Frozen Four, but students on a first-of-its-kind team at the University of Vermont are heading for a regional competition next month. And to win, they'll need to get their hands dirty.

On a sunny Monday, students from UVM's soil judging class are deep in the trenches dredging through dirt. They're sifting through sediment to unravel the mysteries of what's underneath our feet.

This might not look they're training, but believe it or not, with each shovelful of silt or handful of mud these students are preparing to compete.
"I was so excited. I have wanted UVM to start a soil judging competition for the entire time I've been here," said Lucy Zendzian, a UVM senior.

That's right --- soil judging. If you're skeptical, you wouldn't be the first one. "They just don't get it. They just don't understand how exciting it is," said ," said Jack Walinski, a UVM senior. "It's almost kind of like treasure hunting. You're digging in the hole and sometimes you find what you're expecting, and sometimes you find something that's exciting that you didn't expect and you try to explain.

Walinski and Zendzian are both heading for careers in environmental science and agriculture. Their professor, Ben Waterman, says understanding what's in the ground will prepare them well for jobs in agriculture, forestry, engineering, construction and more. "So many land use decisions depend on objective and accurate information. It saves people a lot of money and a lot of time if we have good soils information to base our decisions on," Waterman said.

And he says a key rule for the class is that you have to be willing to get down in the mud. "In fact, that's the dress code I put on the syllabus. You've got to get dirty if you want to do soil judging," he said.

His students aren't squeamish. "If you don't come out just covered in dirt by the end of the class, you did it wrong," Walinski said.

Walinski and Zendzian are the first UVM students to compete. Their team will analyze the properties of a specific patch of soil and their assessments will be graded by the pros. "We're a newer program, so we'll see -- but keeping hopes high," Walinski said.

"I'm nervous because I don't really play a lot of sports, so this is the most competitive thing I really do," Zendzian said.

The UVM team has a few weeks more to practice before the competition begins. It's next month in Maryland. And that'll show them how they stack up against the rest of the soil judging teams from around the country.