Meet Lester, Minnesota's new state soil.
It's a rich loamy soil that has supported prairies, nurtured crops and won over skeptical lawmakers who questioned whether a state that already has an official muffin, mushroom, gemstone, butterfly, fish, bird and beverage really needs another symbol.
"Maybe with this [vote], we'll stop treating our soil like dirt," said Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, as the Senate voted last month to include the soil designation in the omnibus agriculture bill.
Lester, named after the town of Lester Prairie, was a cause whose time had come. After 25 years of low-key campaigning, the soil scientists of Minnesota combined forces this year, hired a lobbyist and hit the Capitol.
"We grow our food on soil, we get our fuel from soil. We take it for granted. It's just there under our feet," said soil scientist Gary Elsner.
Sen. Gen Olson -- a championship soil judge back in her 4-H days -- took up Lester's cause. "We had some fun with it," said Olson, R-Minnetrista, who sponsored the soil bill. "I told people that if I didn't get this passed, my name would be mud."
Some lawmakers frown on these sorts of bills, viewing them as frivolous, she said. But Olson, whose last foray into symboldom helped make ice hockey the official state sport, sees meaning in them. "These symbols create a picture of what Minnesota is about," she said. Elevating dirt to a state symbol reminds people "we need to be responsible and exercise good stewardship" of the land.
By contrast, a group of teddy bear-wielding first-graders had less luck lobbying to name the black bear the state mammal. Little did they know picking a state mammal is a legislative battleground. There have been no fewer than eight attempts to designate the white-tailed deer, six in favor of the Eastern timber wolf and sporadic efforts on behalf of gophers and ground squirrels.
In 1973, according to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, there was a brief bid to make the tick the state animal. Combined with the state bird, the theory was, it would make this the "loon-and-tick" state.
Lester didn't face that sort of political mudslinging -- though a few lawmakers wanted to know why the state soil couldn't be one in their district.
Lester is found in 17 counties in Minnesota and almost nowhere else. The Minnesota Association of Professional Soil Scientists was impressed enough with the dirt to choose it as the state's unofficial soil back in 1987. The plan was to lobby the Legislature the next year to make the designation official. It didn't work out that way.
Just as the soil scientists were gearing up, the muffin lobby launched its campaign for blueberry. Big Muffin got its bill passed, but another group did not. Schoolchildren were lobbying hard to get the Giant Beaver named state fossil. The effort touched off a minor firestorm when outraged lawmakers realized that the creature's scientific name includes the word "Ohio."
After fossilgate, Elsner said, the soil scientists went to work, quietly raising awareness of Lester's many merits. Sandy enough to drain well, with just enough clay to help roots retain moisture, Lester was chosen by the Smithsonian to be Minnesota's representative soil in its traveling "Dig It!" exhibit on the wonders of dirt.
Lester's designation as official state soil comes just in time. The Smithsonian exhibit goes on display at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum in November.