I have been an educator of soils at the University of Minnesota Extension for 18 years. I have watched soil scientist retire, leave to other positions or pass away. Due to tight budgets or changes in priorities, many are not replaced. When a position does open up, many graduates choose the alluring world of crop industry over the underappreciated educator of soils.
I was lucky to have a soil genesis professor at Colorado State University who took our class on field trips to dig in the soils all over western Colorado. This peaked my interest in the physical aspects of soil. I had other influential teachers who taught me about the world of soils that can only be seen under a microscope. All shared stories and experiences about the wonders of soil. Their enthusiasm was contagious. I believe soil education is meant to be a hands-on activity.
Today, I teach adults about microbes that live in our soil and their valuable contributions. Like beer fermentation! (Ok, also antibiotics, food, etc.). I explain to kids about basic soil science and the importance of agriculture. Take out the world’s oceans, seas, lakes, mountains, desserts, polar areas, and that leaves only 6% that can be used to grow crops. Understanding how to manage for productive soils is vital for ensuring a healthy future.
My favorite part of my job is jumping in a soil pit at a farmer’s field to give him the “dirt” about his soil. I show farmers why reducing tillage cares for our microscopic friends, builds structure, and keeps our crops productive. I enjoy describing how to manage compacted areas, improve root growth, and explain the changes in the soil as one digs deeper.
Along the way, I have learned the most from the farmers themselves. I value our talks as I ride along in the combine or the tractor (some even admit to loving the soil as much as I do). I appreciate the many different ways to farm and that one method should not fit all.
Without my education in soils, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet my husband, raise my family on a farm, interact with some of the most hard working people I have ever meet, and thoroughly enjoy my job.
Whatever your child might be interested in; soils can be a part of it. If they like chemistry, they can learn how to feed plants or clean up contaminated areas. Do they like biological systems? They can learn about bacteria, worms, springtails, or my favorite, fungi. If they are interested in math, science, water systems, anthropology or want to teach, all can find a niche in soils. I want to invite you to encourage kids of all ages to “play in the dirt,” learn what it can offer, and have fun with it.
So please help me cultivate the next generation of soil scientists. There are websites with creative and scientific resources for teaching soils. Give it a try. Remember: Soil is not a dirty word!