UNICOI — There’s complete silence among the 20 high schoolers standing around a 3-foot hole at Farmhouse Gallery and Gardens in Unicoi. Some are inside scraping the dark brown walls with a knife and kicking the loose dirt on the floor while others write feverishly on pieces of green paper. Eyes gleaming with concentration come from the most studied and experienced students who answer each question carefully in hopes of winning the five-county land judging contest.
“When I get down in the pit I take out my knife and I run it down the pit and I check for rock fragments,” said Hannah Dugger, a Johnson County senior and FFA member. “I’m looking for anything that would indicate that there are problems in that pit.”
Dugger’s enthusiasm is shared by many of the other competitors who utilize special and practical skills to determine the best use of the land in front of them. The teams of four FFA or 4H members have 25 minutes at each of the four pits to answer questions about slope, texture, possible environmental problems and what crops would grow well in the given area. District Conservationist Greg Quillen makes sure a soil scientist visits the site several days before so that each of the various landscape classifications — flood plain, upland, footslope and depression — are provided in the contest.
Richard Winters, a senior and FFA member at Cloudland, is another participant who doesn’t dare mark his paper before using a blade to determine the texture of the soil.
“The knife helps you feel the soil texture,” he said. “Very gritty soil feels like you’re rubbing your knife against a cinder block wall and that would be very coarse. Very fine textured soil feels like cutting through hot butter. Either one of the extremes is not good soil for most uses.”
Most 12th-graders at the land judging contest had developed a technique out of the experiences they’ve had at previous contests on the local level and at the regional in Knoxville. Dugger’s method allowed her to get more accurate readings.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is ‘Go get the slope of the whole site because everyone runs to the pit,’ ” she said. “If there’s no one near the slope stakes, then I can get a clear reading so that’s what I do first. When I mark the slope I start basing everything on that and then I go to the pit and get my soil reading and textures.”
According to those who participated, Tuesday’s gathering of students from nine schools was trickier than usual, mainly because of the wet weather. Daniel Boone senior and FFA President Payton Tipton wasn’t the only one who said the muddy pits made judging much more difficult.
“The soil looks a little bit different than it usually does when it’s dry,” said Dugger, who was part of the FFA team that won the contest. “Should I mark it too wet or too dry? I don’t know. Is it usually too wet or to dry? It required a lot more thinking than usual, but that’s good because you learn a lot more and you really go through your reasoning skills.”
Both ladies also said that pit No. 1 was the most challenging. Its location near the creek made it even tougher to decipher.
“When you first walked up there it looked pretty easy, but once you got down in there you saw some problems,” Dugger said. “You might not always catch all of them. You can’t always do perfect all the time.”
In the end, the number on the score sheet won’t matter 10 years from now because soil judging is a skill that the students will use throughout their lives. What seems complicated to outsiders is factual and fun for those who are fascinated with what’s underneath their feet. Plus, it’s a tradition for Winters and Tipton, who both were encouraged by family members to participate in FFA competitions.
Winters even plans to practice soil judging in his future career.
“It’s got a lot of practical uses,” he said. “I live on a farm and the same things play into it. I’m interested in it because I’d like to be a civil engineer or biosystems engineer. It’s all based on soil composition.”
Dugger says she’ll be able to apply her skills to almost any job she takes. For someone who stumbled upon the world of land judging more than three years ago, she should be proud of her team’s top performance on Tuesday.
“The teacher went over it, and I entered the county contest and ended up scoring second in our high school so I thought ‘Hey, this is pretty cool,’ ’’ she said. “I didn’t know I was good at judging soil. I started going to the practices and it was awesome how much I got involved and how much I learned about the land and what you can do with the land and the jobs that are available. The learning opportunities in this contest are so amazing.”
Johnson County swept the contest as Dugger’s teammate LaCreisha Mill had the top individual score out of all the FFA competitors and Will Hicks took individual honors in the 4H category. A second Johnson County team placed first in 4H.