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DECATUR -- Where there is dirt in agriculture, there is money, but you've got to know how to read the signs.

No big problem for Future Farmers of America kids at this year's Farm Progress Show in Decatur. You could find them Tuesday at the bottom of a big hole in the ground in a field on the edge of Progress City with dirt under their fingernails as they probed the soil and scored what they found on a check sheet. There were cash prizes for the future farmers who figured out the right answers.

“We are judging the soil,” explained Alivia Alford, 15, from Williamsfield. “You have to check like the texture and the drainage and how much water it holds. If it's not draining well, then it will have more water in it. We're trying to judge the quality of the soil.”

The contest involved some 50 FFA students from Illinois and Indiana who fought out their own team competitions because each state uses different criteria to assess soil quality. Thanks to sponsorship from Farm Credit Illinois, 1st Farm Credit Services and Farm Credit Mid-America, the top team from each state harvested a $400 prize and the second and third place teams won $100 each. The top individual scorers on each team received $200 each, with another $100 going to the second and third-place individuals.

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Alivia said that kind of reward helps sharpen the digging skills but how well anyone does comes down to the same common denominator of success on or off the farm: “It all depends how much you practice,” she added.

The contest was operated by the University of Illinois Extension Service, and Dennis Bowman, an extension educator, was the event coordinator. He said the kids were being tested on skills they learn in high school FFA classes, and the ability to read soil comes in handy in all sorts of fields.

“These students can tell you what kind of crops you can grow in a particular soil and they can also tell you whether or not it's a good place to build a home because of the soil structure,” Bowman said. “We've got some really sharp kids who know their soils very well.”

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