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Students get hands dirty in soil competition

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PHILADELPHIA — “Feel free to get down in the pit to smell it and look at it,” field crops educator Michael E. Hunter said Tuesday morning, directing the attention of 35 high schoolers from Alexandria Central School to a large pit of soil about 6 feet deep on a piece of farmland.

The agriculture students represented one of the seven school districts from Jefferson and Lewis counties that competed in the Jefferson-Lewis Subdistrict FFA’s annual land judging contest at the 400-acre dairy farm owned by Michael B. Kiechle.

About 260 students rotated through seven stations to analyze different soil types, completing a list of 50 multiple-choice questions to identify a soil’s qualities and how it should be managed properly.

Alexandria Central School agriculture teacher Richard F. Campany, whose students have entered the competition for 34 years, said his class spent two weeks readying for the competition. Students conducted permeability tests, for example, in which water was drained through different soil types. Farms with clay soils need to be managed differently because they don’t drain water well and are more susceptible to flooding.

“I have a few farm kids, but most of these students have lawns and gardens,” Mr. Campany said of his class this year. “Students are able to think about whether land would be good growing sites and identify limitations.”

Because clay drains water slowly, subsurface drainage lines under clay soil are needed to ensure that crops don’t flood. The sandy soil examined by Alexandria students, though, wouldn’t need a drainage or septic system.

“It’s a lot more work than we thought it would be to manage the land,” said junior Cassandra J. Purtell from Alexandria, who finished the exercise with her identical twin sister, Carissa A. “And if you make a mistake (as a farmer), you have to do everything all over.”

Although the twins shivered in the 45-degree air, both of them smiled as they turned in their questionnaires and prepared to march a quarter-mile to the next station in knee-high rubber boots.

“It’s a good experience to be out here and more productive” than in the classroom,” Cassandra said.

At a station situated next to the Indian River, students analyzed the degree and length of the slope.

“If land’s located next to a hillside, you don’t want to have a row of crops there because of erosion” because of a lack of water, Mr. Hunter said. “Planting grass and trees (as a buffer) near the water is a good idea.”

At another station, a group of students from Belleville Henderson Central School learned about the dangers of digging on ground where underground electrical and gas lines could be located.

Many accidents occur because of the naive belief that taking shortcuts can make a project easier, said James C. Flint, field representative for 811 “Call Before You Dig,” a free utility service offered in New York state. But the mistake of believing an electrical line is a root could mean instant death by sending a 1,500-volt surge of electricity through one’s body.

“A couple of hits with a shovel and they’re zapped,” Mr. Flint said, holding up a shovel warped by electrocution in an accident for effect. “This guy got lucky because the electricity only crossed his body. But if it crosses your heart, you’re done.”

Work crews detect underground lines using metal detectors, he said in response to a student’s question.

Mr. Flint advised students to call 811 three days before starting a project to ensure the ground is safe.

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