The auger turns, grinding steadily into the rich Indiana soil as he waits.
Not long ago, this windswept farmland sustained acres of cornstalks, each shooting 7 feet into the sky. In a matter of weeks, neat little rows of green soybean plants will grow here. They’ll never be higher than his shins. He waits.
“At this point in my career, I’m either going to be good or I’m going to be gone,” he says, resting his elbow casually on a shovel. It’s not a matter of if there’s sand beneath this farm. It’s a matter of when he’ll find it.
The auger turns. And Senior Geologist Al Witty waits.
This isn’t his first visit to the farm. Months ago, the landowner reached out to Martin Marietta about possibly selling the property. Two weeks ago, Witty and his partners, Dredge Operator/Driller Kelly Hacker and Leadperson/Driller Donnie Norris, surveyed the ground’s subsurface using a process called electrical resistivity profiling. They found that there is, in fact, sand beneath the soil.
Now in use for about a decade, electrical resistivity profiling utilizes data collected after electric current is shot into the ground through yards of cable containing scores of small electrodes. It allows geologists to quickly and easily map just about any subsurface without disturbing the land above. Needless to say, it’s changed the face of Witty’s profession. It’s also brought him to established quarries and greensites in places like Iowa and Arkansas; Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio; and Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Still, he’s based in Indiana and his work here is paramount.
The auger continues, now turning up a thick sludge of dark brown mud.
“My job is to define the deposit parameters,” the geologist says. “After that, it’s up to the production guys to decide how we should mine it.”
Hacker jiggers the auger. Witty waits as mud splatters over his jeans and high-visibility hooded sweatshirt. Titles and salary have always been secondary to the geologist, who measures his success in more practical terms.
While profiling the Noblesville Stone site last year, for example, he was certain there was material in a deep section of the quarry that was difficult to sufficiently test. The only way to be certain was to invest about $20,000 in a new down-hole casing system. He took the request to the district’s leadership.
“(Indiana District Vice President-General Manager) Ed Gehr listens to me – I guess that comes when you get a little bit of gray in your hair,” Witty says. “I convinced him to make the investment and we were able to verify an additional 40 million tons of high-quality limestone reserves that will greatly extend the life of the mine.”
In his own words, Witty “gets results.” That much is clear. But there’s more to excelling in his position than just producing. Multiple puzzle pieces must fit into place for any geologist seeking a decades-long career. Approaching the job with the right attitude is also vital.
“It takes passion. Every day, I come out and learn something new. It’s a passion for work, a passion for knowledge,” Witty says. “It also takes the right tools and the right leadership. A large part of why I’ve been successful is because Ed believes in me.”
The auger twists, reaching nearly 30 feet below the ground and continuing to turn up earth that likely hasn’t seen the light of day since the last ice age. Witty puts his shovel to use as a pile of dark material begins to form, first a few inches high and then a few feet.
Witty is nearing the end of his time at the farm – at least for today. He’ll take what he’s learned back to Gehr and others in the Mideast Division and they’ll decide whether the company offers to lease or purchase the property. If acquiring rights to the land is in the cards, Witty’s work is the first and likely most vital step in the mining process. Many decisions that will determine the site’s future will be based on the data he provides. The responsibility is never far from his mind.
“Every technical decision – from the type of plant we put in to the type of extraction process we employ – will be built upon geological data that we provide,” he says. “That’s the main reason why we can’t just be good, we have to be right.”