Soils data is available in the palm of your hand

ST. PAUL — Want to know more about your dirt?

There’s an app for that.

The soils smart phone application was developed by graduate students at the University of California-Davis and is now available as a free app at the app store, said Caryl Radatz, Natural Resources Conservation Service state soil scientist in Minnesota.

The app works wherever data has been collected across the United States. The app accesses the same database as the web soil survey site, just in a different way.

It works like this: A person accesses the app on their phone and the app determines the location utilizing the phone’s GPS. A signal goes out to the national soil database and it comes back with the name of the soil the person is standing on. It will draw a graphic of the soil profile, indicating the thickness of the various soil layers and information about the texture of the layers.


The smart phone user can dig deeper into the information and learn about soil productivity and about the physical and chemical properties of the soil.

All this information used to be compiled in county soil survey books, Radatz said. Now, it’s digital and available instantaneously.

The app doesn’t work on urban land as there isn’t soil survey data on urban land, but if soil survey data is out there, it’s accessible through the app. Further, data isn’t collected on parcels of five acres or less, Radatz said.

A global soil map is the goal, she said, and now there’s data from all 50 states and a place in Mexico.

In Minnesota, soil survey work continues in order to further build the database. Data is available from 83 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. There is a crew of soil scientists working in Crow Wing County in order to complete an extensive update of the county’s soil data, Radatz said. Lake and Cook counties have initial surveys in progress. Pine County has some data available, and will probably be the last county to be completed.

Lottery proceeds are helping to accelerate completion of the soil survey work, she said. At the same time, the existing data from across the state is being improved. The data has been collected over the past 100 years and is of different vintages. In the digital age, discrepancies in data become more apparent.

When an NRCS soil survey team moves into an area, they look at existing data and talk to people in the county to discover which projects need doing, Radatz said. They look for holes in existing data.

Soil is so complex, there is always something new to learn about it, she said. Nationwide, NRCS just completed a huge sampling project on soil carbon. The samples are being analyzed now to determine how much carbon is in the soil and how different management effects soil carbon.


Soil survey work is an ongoing and continuos NRCS project, Radatz said.

As part of the USDA Blueprint for Stronger Service, 24 NRCS soil survey offices in 21 states are proposed to close. The St. Paul office will remain open. The number of positions nationwide will be reduced, so fewer people will cover a larger area, relying more on technology, like smart phone apps, to get the work done.

What To Read Next
Get Local