Getting the dirt on quality soil

Tour participants had their heads in the sand and that was the point. It was the Alberta Soils Tour of the Athabasca oilsands region, planned for last year, postponed because of fire and reorganized May 29-31.

Farmers are interested in soil and many have spent time in the Fort McMurray region earning money to support their farming habit. That was the pitch for attending the tour and the reason I went along.

The differences between brunisol on shallow bituminous sand, orthic gray luvisol and humic luvic gleysol are best left for the soil scientists to explain. Ditto the glaciofluvial undulating to ridged eolian and the lacustrine veneers in morainal sectors.

Though appreciative of soil’s complexity and value, I found the nomenclature only occasionally comprehensible. In other words, the talk was over my head while the subject was under my feet.

The tour was led by Konstantin Dlusskiy, a soil scientist with Paragon Soil and Environmental Consulting, Larry Turchenek, formerly of AMEC Foster Wheeler and Leonard Leskiw, president of Soil Savvy Inc. They made an impressive team.

On the tour, advance scouts went ahead to dig holes. Then the busload of soil tourists trooped through ditch and forest to observe the terra horizons and discuss definitions.

Soil identification is a tricky business these days because the system for naming different types is being modified, we learned. As well, there are “lumpers” and “splitters” within the soil science community. The former folks combine various types and the latter insist on defining each layer, no matter how thin.

Participants learned the donut test and the pretzel technique for measuring soil properties and how soils respond to both long ago and recent fires.

For a group that often has its collective head in a hole, soil scientists don’t seem to miss much.

Ray Gauthier, a farmer near Boyle, Alta., who allowed his field to be part of the tour, is no stranger to soil, although he finds the scientific descriptions less relevant to the farming task. He had just finished combining the 2016 crop when we spoke May 31. “Dirt’s what you find under your bed,” said Gauthier.

True.

Soil, on the other hand, is the fascinating, complex base on which our lives are built and it mustn’t be taken for granted.

(See Barb’s feature on Fort McMurray next week)

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