The Soil Testing Division was established in 1938 to analyze soils and make site- and crop-specific fertilizer and lime recommendations. Work began in July 1939 when I. E. Miles was named the division's first director. After converting some downtown Raleigh office space into a makeshift laboratory, Miles and his staff of six full-time and seven part-time employees began soil testing in early 1940. The staff also began a concerted effort to educate state citizens about the new service. Particular attention was devoted to cooperating with fertilizer dealers, educators and other agricultural agencies.
Throughout the early years, the division worked closely with farmers and agricultural leaders to verify the efficacy of its fertilizer and lime recommendations. Testing procedures were updated repeatedly so that recommendations would be tailored to new farm management practices and crop varieties. Modern farmers owe a large debt to the division's early employees, whose careful evaluations and painstaking refinements helped build the foundation of practical knowledge upon which North Carolina agriculture continues to flourish.
The service grew rapidly. With promotional assistance from the N.C. Extension Service and the Soil Conservation Service, the division analyzed 65,000 samples in 1940; 22,000 in 1944; 42,000 in 1947; and 85,000 in 1949. By the early 1950s, state farmers were using more fertilizer, and using it more efficiently, than any other farmers in the nation. Such efficiency can be attributed, in large part, to the leadership efforts of directors Werner L. Nelson (1948) and Dr. J. W. Fitts (1950).
Although farmers were the primary benefactors of soil testing, the state agricultural experiment station, highway department and even federal agencies relied on the division for technically precise information about soil chemistry. Scientists interested in establishing soil testing programs in other states and nations came from as far away as South America, India and China to spend weeks, or even months, in North Carolina studying the program and looking for ways to adapt it to their own regions.
Educational effort was devoted to demonstrating the value of soil testing without creating unrealistic expectations about the kinds of problems it could solve. Initial enthusiasm over the new tool caused some growers to view it as a panacea, forgetting that planting dates, crop variety, weeds, insects, diseases, nematodes, soil physical conditions and a host of other variables all affect yields as well. Division representatives emphasized that optimum production requires that each of these variables be carefully managed.
Equal attention was devoted to teaching farmers the proper means of taking a representative soil sample—a variable which, to this day, remains the weakest link in the testing process. As Director Fitts stated, "A soil testing laboratory does not test a farmer's land, only the sample submitted." Getting farmers to submit samples that accurately reflect field conditions is one of the enduring challenges faced by any soil testing program.
By the early 1950s, soil testing was an established part of the state's most efficient agricultural enterprises. Nonetheless, administrators felt that a 400 percent increase in sampling would be required if the state was to maximize its productive potential. To help meet this expanded workload, the division moved to the new Agricultural Building Annex in 1955. Under the leadership of director S. L. Tisdale, the division also established a research position responsible for developing more accurate chemical tests and a more precise means of translating test findings into field results.
Throughout the 1950s, the division maintained close ties with N.C. State University. By the mid-1950s, the division was performing more than 6,000 soil tests per year for university researchers. In collaboration with the university's visual aids department, the division also prepared an educational soil testing film for use by extension agents and vocational teachers.
In the early 1960s, farmers were spending between 10 and 20 percent of their gross incomes on fertilizer and lime. As director Eugene J. Kamprath explained, farmers needed reliable information about where and when to apply those amendments if they were to the maximize the return on their investments. This was precisely the role the division was empowered to fulfill.
During Kamprath's tenure, the division began compiling county-by-county summaries of soil test results, liming rates and recommended fertilizer grades for all major crops. These summaries helped local agricultural workers identify the principal fertility constraints to plant growth. They also helped fertilizer dealers and policy makers respond to long-term, region-specific needs.
Under director Preston R. Reid, the division took advantage of laboratory equipment innovations, such as the atomic absorption spectrophotometer, to improve both the accuracy and the range of its services. Also about this time, the division found itself responding to the needs of a much broader range of users. In 1966, more than 3,300 urban homeowners submitted soil samples in an effort to improve their lawns and gardens. In responding to their needs, the division not only helped to beautify the state, it also helped to curb a serious, but often overlooked, environmental hazard: overly zealous fertilization of small plots by large urban populations.
The division's laboratories continued to serve as an important training ground. From 1964 to 1966, for example, agronomists from more than 27 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America attended training sessions at the facility. In addition, tours and training classes for state residents were conducted throughout the year. The division also worked closely with other state laboratories to promote nationwide uniformity of soil testing methods and recommendations.
In 1969, director Donald W. Eaddy identified a number of gaps in the agronomic services available to state farmers. To close those gaps and improve land use efficiency, Eaddy proposed that the Soil Testing Division be expanded into a more comprehensive Agronomic Division. Along with its established duties, the new division would also provide
- soil analyses for micronutrients and toxic elements,
- plant tissue analyses,
- a pilot program on waste and solution services and
- nematode assays.
In 1971, the North Carolina legislature approved Eaddy's proposal, along with his request for a new building capable of supporting the division's expanded role. These changes were to take effect in 1973.