Minnetrista farm has a prime example of the new state soil, boosting educational programs.
Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill in April that recognizes a type of soil -- known simply as Lester -- as the official state soil of Minnesota.
Minnestrista's Gale Woods Farm, less than a mile northwest of Lake Minnetonka, sits on one of the state's most abundant samples of the soil.
Members of the Minnesota Association of Professional Soil Scientists (MAPSS), Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, and various local soil scientists gathered at Gale Woods for a pit excavation and photo shoot in the woods behind the farm.
Tim Reese, a farm supervisor at Gale Woods, said he was unaware that the property was home to the now popular soil. MAPPS member Al Giencke, he said, called him with an idea after the legislation was passed.
"He basically said, 'Hey, did you know this legislative act made Lester soil the official soil of Minnesota? And you happen to be sitting on top of a lot of it?" Reese said. "And I said 'No, I had no idea.'"
Giencke, who regularly hikes through Gale Woods' trails, noticed the property's rich supply of Lester during one of his recent walks.
"He thought it would be a great place for us to do educational work around the soil," Reese said, "and I agreed."
As farm supervisor, Reese heads the facility's education programs, which include workshops in gardening, farming, fiber arts and cooking.
Gale Woods, part of the Three Rivers Park District, sees about 25,000 children and adults per year, he said.
The abundance of Lester soil on the farm's property, he said, now gives the staff a chance to dig a little deeper -- "no pun intended," he assured -- and expand their farming workshops.
Seizing new opportunities
"We normally have different stations for our programs," Reese said, "and one of them, called 'Soil Chefs,' is all about how farmers can manage their soil, where the kids figure out how you can make soil through composting."
Experts knew for years that Lester was the ideal soil for Minnesota, said Gary Elsner, a MAPSS soil scientist.
"It's a soil that we have in about 16 counties," he said. "It's normally developed between the prairie and forest, so we can talk about its agricultural production and its forest production from an economic perspective."
Technically, he said, a "soil" is the entire series of "horizons" from the surface down -- sort of a like a multi-layer cake. Lester's distinctly colored layers or, in Elsner's words, its "photo-genetic nature" -- make it easy to differentiate between sections, a major bonus for teaching.
"All the major diagnostic horizons are very obvious, so when you're educating someone about it, it's easy to point to which sections you're talking about."
Lester gets in line
Lester's journey toward state soil status is a tale almost worthy of a screenplay - and one that was 25 years in the making.
In 1985, Elsner said, MAPSS formed a State Soil Committee with the specific task of finding the best soil series in the state to become Minnesota's state soil. The soil would have to meet four criteria:
• based in Minnesota
• economically important
In 1987, after research, nominations and much debate, the committee decided on Lester.
"At the time, though, the legislation was going through debates to decide the official state muffin," he said. "There was also a group of kids who wanted to make the giant beaver the official state fossil."
The group decided not to get in the middle of the other proposals and hold off for a bit. (For the record, the blueberry muffin passed as the official state muffin; the giant beaver, however, didn't make it.)
"A couple years ago, me and some other members started looking at what we call the 'perfect storm' for soil in Minnesota," Elsner said. "Our organization's 40th anniversary is next year, the Department of Soil, Water and Climate's 100th anniversary is next year, and it's the 150th anniversary of the USDA.
"Plus, the Smithsonian soil exhibit 'Dig It' is coming to the Cities in November," he said. "So we wanted to use all these soil-related events to highlight the importance of soil and try to get this passed."
Reason for elation
And, after 25 years, it's now official.
"This is Minnesota's first state soil," Elsner said. "We're the 22nd state in the entire country to have one."
Reese said he's glad to have learned of Lester -- and excited to keep moving Gale Woods' workshops forward.
"We work with soil and agriculture all the time," he said. "All of this, meeting with members of MAPSS and other soil scientists, senators, et cetera -- it's a really nice partnership.
"I'm excited to see where we'll go from here."
Eric Larson is a Twin Cities freelance writer.