The state Department of Agriculture established a new fee last year aimed as much at altering behavior as at raising money for the state. It appears to have worked.
Since the 1940s, North Carolina farmers and gardeners have been sending soil samples to a state lab in Raleigh for testing to determine if and where to add lime and fertilizer. Until last fall, the tests were free year-around.
The vast majority of those soil samples – which totaled about 330,000 last year – came in during the winter months. The laboratory on Reedy Creek Road in West Raleigh got so backed up that a set of tests that normally takes one week would take as many as nine, making farmers anxious about getting the results in time for spring planting.
So last year, at the direction of the General Assembly and Commissioner of Agriculture, the agronomic laboratory began charging $4 per soil sample during the busiest months of December through March. The aim was to encourage farmers to get their dirt in earlier in the fall to spread things out.
It’s working, said David Hardy, head of the soil testing lab. Last year, January was still the busiest month for testing, at about 60,000 samples, but October and November were not far behind, as farmers avoided the fee. Before the fee, February and March were peak months.
“We’ve definitely gotten busier earlier,” Hardy said.
Most samples arrive either by UPS or delivered by hand to the lab’s loading dock. Hardy keeps a photo of the dock stacked especially high with boxes of dirt last Nov. 27, the last working day before the new fee went into effect.
Most soils in North Carolina are relatively acidic and low in nutrients and need lime and fertilizer to get plants to do their best. But with profit margins tight, farmers don’t want to spend money on fertilizer and lime they don’t need, which is where the soil tests come in.
“The soil sampling is one of the most vital things you can do,” said Kenneth Sanderson, a Wayne County farmer who tends about 800 acres with his son. “It gives you the nutrient levels so you can supply what you need and not more than you need. And that can save you a lot of money.”
Sanderson grows tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat, a little cotton, muscadine grapes and “a few pumpkins.” He moves those crops around and sends about 150 soil samples a year to the state lab to make sure he knows what to apply to the fields.
“Without a sample, you’d just be guessing,” he said. “And every field is different.”
Sampling has grown in recent years, topping 350,000 at the state lab in five of the past seven years, as farmers use GPS to better pinpoint where to apply lime and fertilizer. Where farmers might have done one test on a typical 7-acre field, they are now doing two or three, Hardy said.
The new testing fee raised $147,000 last year, money the legislature directed to be used to reduce turnaround time with better equipment and part-time help. The lab’s 16 full-time workers and a handful of temps in the busy season can do more than 4,300 tests in a nine-hour day, Hardy said.
Starting this year, the state now has competition from two private labs that charge more but offer 48-hour turnaround for those who can’t wait. Colleen Hudak-Wise, director of the agriculture department’s Agronomic Services Division, said the state also offers consultation with an agronomist who will help interpret the test results and offer advice.
“We have a Cadillac service,” Hudak-Wise said.
Where dirt goes
Anyone can send a soil sample to the state lab; the battery of three tests for PH, nutrients and organic content are the same for gardeners, who account for about 15 percent of the samples. Gardeners and farmers alike can send in their samples anytime.
And what happens to all that dirt after it’s tested? It goes to Apex, where the town composts the soil and the cardboard boxes it comes in.