Soil Science is What?

As reference, please see: which is a publication of Mississippi State University and the Extension Service that oversees the state Master Gardener organization.

All states are represented by at least one land grant university, and the reason I'm 'picking on' Mississippi is three-fold.

First, this particular publication makes statements that cannot (in this author's opinion) be supported scientifically such as in the beginning of the 4th paragraph of the document referred to in the above link(which will be discussed further, later in this work).

Second, this publication was recently updated in November 2009.

Third, disparities among such publications by 'soil science' proponents are common, particularly from land grant universities that oversee AgriLife programs, particularly Master Gardener Associations - an organization to which I happen to be a current Certified member (although not in Mississippi).

So I'm comfortable writing about Master Gardener organizations, and I understand how the Extension Service functions, and the latitude that Master Gardener Associations are provided in promulgating (even on the .www)whatever it is they believe, in their support of the land grant university AgriLife programs.

As can be verified by anyone who takes the time to check, there is not a lot of coordination of material promulgated between state Master Gardener publications, nor from associations within a given state.

The point of this presentation is to bring to the fore, that there are other ways to view and promulgate information about earth/land/ground/dirt and soil - than just within the scope of a Soil Taxonomy System.

And, it's more than that. I am the leader of Organics Recycling Group, International LLC (ORG) that is moving forward to establish and set standards for making and using recycled organic materials by which land/earth/ground/soil/dirt is 'conditioned' to increase/benefit PLANTS established in such mediums produced, or mixed with upper soil horizons.

Such mediums may or may not be used to amend and improve native soil - which disturbs and changes native soil - to the degree that soil science will no longer recognize the amended medium as soil per se.

So if the amended medium no longer 'fits' within the Soil Taxonomy System - what IS it? This discussion and several others on this site provide thoughts along this line of reasoning, intended to solve this dilemma.

Someone coming into a study of natural soil may think they are learning a foreign language. People who train/teach students about soil science do use specific terminology in discussing soils in a holistic sense. Both soil classification and nomenclature has been a challenge for centuries, in every language.

This author studies soil, and although do not posess a degree in that science, being an agriculturist of sorts, I am quite familiar with soil and dirt, and the uses of them for growing plants.

Currently most of the higher education entities in the U.S. use the USDA soil taxonomy system developed in the United States, whereby soil properties are used to name them - so in techno-speak, an Alfisol in South America can be assumed to have similar characteristics to an Alfisol in the United States. Then there is the FAO and WRB systems as well as others which ORG will also reckon with, being an international organization.

Most U.S. agriculturalists are familar with series names, however series is only the final step of the system. The hoped-for strength of the system is a complete soil-name to convey lots of information in a relatively brief phrase.

The following is adapted from materials obtained from Professor Ed Nater of Mississippi State University. I make use of it because it is candid in discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the system, and is presented here as a reference to what is missing - as much as to what is included...

•Order: The broadest category in the system. Distinctions between orders are based largely on horizon morphology, with (unfortunately in some cases) soil genesis as an underlying factor. In general, each order is presumed to contain soils whose common properties suggest similar genesis. There are 12 orders in the taxonomy, but the key hasn't been updated to include the 12th yet. [oops].

•Suborder: The suborders are subdivisions of the order based on factors such as wetness, climate (temperature and moisture), mode of deposition, texture, or diagnostic horizons. The number of suborders varies from four to seven within orders.

•Great Group: Diagnostic horizons are often used to differentiate great groups within a suborder. For example, the presence or absence of an argillic horizon might distinguish one great group from another. (Argillic horizons are layers with observable clay accumulation in the soil profile).

•Subgroup: The subgroups are subdivisions of the great groups. The typical, or central, concept of the great group makes one subgroup (Typic). Often, other subgroups are intergrades between the current great group and the central concepts of other great groups (i.e., mollic subgroups of Alfisols).

•Family: The family category allows the grouping of members of a subgroup by such things as common texture, mineralogy, pH, soil temperature, coarse fragment content, or soil depth. This level of the system is often the most useful one for interpretations because it is the most descriptive.

•Series: Soil series represents a collection of soils essentially uniform in most differentiating characteristics and the arrangement of horizons. This is level most often identified by farmers and the NRCS. Names are usually based on towns near where the soil was first identifed.

There is one more web link from MSU that begs for attention in this presentation: Quote: "There may be as many definitions of soil as there are people with an opinion about it. The following goes beyond the purely physical to a more functional understanding of soils. Soil is a living, dynamic resource that supports plant life. It is made up of different size mineral particles (sand, silt, and clay), organic matter, and numerous species of living organisms. Soil has biological, chemical, and physical properties that are always changing. (from National Soil Survey Center et al.) Dirt is often called soil out of place, but dirt does not have the ability to support plants, or the intricate interplay of biology and physio-chemistry that makes soil unique." Unquote.

Well. This author not only takes exception to some of those statements as being untrue, but also takes exception to the general context of this view by soil science in general that is constantly bantered about the Internet without university professors thinking anything about it.

But thereby, the fact that DIRT exists, is not open for debate. That the study of dirt also exists, separate from the study of soil, is also inherently apparent. So what I study with my laboratory equipment is dirt. OK, fine.

I also appreciate MSU stating that my opinion about soil is just as valid as anybody else's opinion, and surely that goes for my definition of dirt as well.

However, this author believes that MSU promulgates untrue statements, such as: "Dirt does not have life sustaining properties." The next sentence states: "Greenhouse media is not soil either. It does not have the unique three-dimensional characteristics that can only evolve as a function of place, time, and the environment." Tsk, tsk, tsk...

MSU defines soil as: "...a natural body synthesized from a mixture of broken and weathered minerals and decaying organic matter..." And again, it is not my intention just to 'isolate' MSU in this issue. It is a very common perception within the higher education community that dirt is worthless. Anything except soil is worthless for growing plants. And the definition of soil does not include greenhouse media. That improper perception, magnified and perpetuated by systems of higher learning is what this presentation is all about.

By that, dirt is defined as a "not-natural" body, just because it is simply soil that has been disturbed by man? So by being disturbed, dirt has somehow been transformed into something 'synthetic'?

Greenhouse media - often called 'potting dirt/soil/media' utilizes altered-state (heat-treated) mineral materials that soil purists recognize as belonging to soil. Two of those are perlite and vermiculite that are well-known for their altered-state capacity to hold air and water for effective plant growth.

And according to soil science, greenhouse ontainer "mediums" that grow so many seedlings, sold in stores all over the world, are not supposed to be able to grow anything because it may contain dirt?

OK - so because MSU recognizes greenhouse media as dirt, then soil science purists should not have a problem with this author also including all 'container media' within the realm of dirt? That's OK with me.

Let's try this:
Soil and dirt can both consist of natural elements. but soil consists of ONLY natural elements in it's NATURAL state as nature put it together.
So when man interferes with the natural state of soil, it is no longer soil, but becomes dirt.

If that is true, then the 2K+ old Terra Praeta material of Amazon Basin fame, is dirt, and not soil. Or, is soil science saying that dirt can revert back to soil in time?

Hmmmm, this author does not think so, because what man does to soil, to make it dirt, changed it from then on. Time does not remove the pieces of broken pottery or chunks of pure carbon charcoal from the 'terra praeta' dirt that ancient civilizations created in the Amazonian Basin.

In making that terra praeta DIRT, man established a new environment from which the microbial diversity has even expanded the pockets of that dirt, scientifically VERY much different, from the adjacent native soils.

Therein can be seen the distinction between natural soil and the long-term effects of man "messing with" soil. Making it MUCH better. So - by MSU's definition, Terra Praeta material is man-made DIRT. More nutritive to plants than the surrounding native soil. So how can MSU claim that dirt "...does not have life sustaining properties." ????

Just goes to prove that soil science still does not have 'the answers', and just perhaps, dirt - as dirt, holds some answers for science?

And why is this important? Because ORG is involved in setting some standards for DIRT, as a separate category from soil, establishing dirt in its own realm of scientific study (including compost, compost tea and relationships of other amendments to improve soil that soil science is not particularly concerned with).

ORG as an organization does not appreciate the soil science community's lack of respect for this very important aspect of nurturing plants within the organic community, in exclusion of synthetic products.

For further views on this subject, refer to the article DIRT DEFINED in this 'More Soil-Dirt Topics' section.

© 2009 Robert C. Moore

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