Helping farmers cut costs while maintaining productivity is Mark Martin's goal in his new job at the Carroll County Extension Service.
As the county's first nutrient management consultant, Martin will be testing soils and manure to determine how much fertilizer a crop needs.
"I'll take into account the nutrients from the manure, telling them how to best utilize the fertilizer on the farm already," he said, adding that fertilizer companies have been analyzing soils for years.
"It's based on an unbiased opinion, taking full account of the nutrients manure has."
Martin, 30, said experience is what got him this job with the extension agency.
"I was raised on a dairy farm and have been a farmer all my life," he said of his family's Howard County farm where they milked 140 cows and farmed 600 acres of corn, alfalfa, wheat, barley and soybeans.
Martin is taking undergraduate classes at Montgomery Community College in Rockville and will transfer to the University of Maryland at College Park in Prince George's County next semester to study agronomy.
Although the cows have been sold, he and his wife, Tracy -- a full-time student at Montgomery Community College -- still farm the land in Woodbine, where they live with their two sons, Brennan, 6, and Jordan, 3.
"Experience is the best education you can have," he said.
The nutrient management program -- already in place on the Eastern Shore and in Washington, Frederick, Baltimore and Harford counties for about two years -- has been successful in those areas, he said, adding that recommendations have saved farmers an average of $24.42 per acre farmed.
Each type of crop needs different nutrients in varying amounts and continuing research from the University of Maryland Extension Service has determined what they need, Martin said.
"The University Extension Service is based on education," he said. "It's a constant thing of education and learning."
For example, alfalfa needs a lot of potassium, while corn needs more nitrogen, he said. Wheat, soybeans and barley are Carroll's other main crops.
"The recommendations are a lot lower than they used to be," Martin said.
"It used to be that a farmer used 1.2 pounds of nitrogen for every bushel (of corn) produced. Now it's down to one pound for every bushel."
Land productivity is based on a farm's crop history, he said.
"Because weather is a factor, we take the average over a long period of time," Martin said. "There is a limited factor as to how much the land can produce."
Most soil and manure samples are taken to the labs in College Park, he said.
However, the nitrogen "quick test" for corn -- which determines if the crop needs more fertilizer in mid-growing season -- must be analyzed in Westminster because of the short span of time during which it's applicable.
"There's only a four-week period of time when the test can be done," Martin said, adding that soil samples a foot deep are taken when the corn is a foot high. "It's like an on/off switch that can save the farmer money."
Tests are $5 per soil sample and manure samples -- worth $40 -- are free, he said, adding they calibrate the fertilizer spreaders so farmers have a more precise estimate of what they are applying to the fields.
"We just want to promote what the farmer does anyway," Martin said.