From the tractor
by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler
This month I want to talk about some changes we implemented with our Agronomic Services Division at the end of 2013. This division is responsible, for among other things, processing and analyzing all the soil samples submitted by farmers and homeowners in the state.
Soil samples are an important management tool for farmers, helping them to determine what nutrients need to be added to maximize crop growth and yields, and also to protect the environment. If you are not making use of soil sampling, I would encourage you to do so.
Each year the Agronomic Division gets flooded from December through March with soil samples. About 60 percent of the samples that come into the lab for the entire year, come in during this time.
Thousands of samples pour into the lab in Raleigh; so many that the boxes with samples line the walls and halls of the office, waiting to be processed. This influx means the processing time gets extended by up to nine weeks at times because there are simply too many samples to get to quickly.
We have worked hard to become more efficient in how we process soil samples, even using a robot that can move across rows of samples measuring pH and percent humic matter. We also use seasonal, temporary help to assist in the processing.
Our overall goal is to get results back to farmers in time for them to be ready for the growing season. But quite frankly, it has been a challenge to meet the demand, so we have started a new process to try to help farmers get their results in time.
This December a new fee went into effect for peak-season soil samples. Soil samples are normally processed for free, but this $4 peak-season fee was meant to encourage farmers to submit their soil samples early and lessen the winter backlog. Basically, soil samples submitted before Thanksgiving would be processed for free and those submitted after the deadline would cost $4 per sample.
The new fee meant that an unprecedented number of samples came into the lab in November, pushing turnaround time to eight weeks at a time of year that usually has a much quicker sample time. But, because the samples came in earlier, we were still able to get results back to farmers soon enough to prepare land for the upcoming growing season.
Due to the fee and the resulting earlier workload peak, the soil lab is now processing samples within two weeks. Growers who may have been unable to sample due to wet weather, still have time to submit samples now and get results in time for planting. The peak-season fee remains in effect through March 31.
Homeowners don’t face the same production timetables as farmers so we encourage them to submit samples from April through October, when there is no fee and lab turnaround time is typically two weeks or less.
Samples boxes are available at cooperative extension offices and the agronomic lab in Raleigh. Homeowners should identify areas of their property that they may want to fertilize differently, such as lawn, flower garden, vegetable garden, trees and shrubs. A different sample needs to be taken for each area. Visit the Agronomic Services website, www.ncagr.gov/agronomi, for information on how to collect a sample and submit it to the lab for testing.
Again, I want to emphasize that these fees are not meant to discourage folks from taking soil samples or making use of this service, but an attempt to get these critical samples in earlier so they can be useful and effective for farmers.
I appreciate the cooperation of everyone who sent those samples in early. Thank you for helping us meet our goals in the most cost-effective way possible. We will continue to look at this program and seek ways to make improvements to benefit our residents.