Loss of soil lab lamented

Md. farmers with nutrient-management plans rely upon testing


When the University of Maryland closed its soil-testing lab two years ago, few noticed beyond the state's farmers and a scattered few homeowners who took their gardening seriously. But loss of the program has had unintended consequences - not only for farmers, but also agricultural researchers, environmentalists and even Delaware taxpayers.

Soil testing is an essential part of land management. Homeowners and farmers take samples from their yards and fields and send them to the labs, which analyze the nutrients in the soil, helping them decide which fertilizers they need and in what amounts. Such testing is considered a key step in nutrient-management plans designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

In fact, some Maryland farmers say that closing the lab sends a mixed message about the state's commitment to environmentally friendly farming.

Charles Fry, president of the Frederick County Farm Bureau, said closing the lab was "a bit of hypocrisy" at a time when the state was pushing farmers to adopt nutrient-management programs. Fry says he still gets his soil tested - taking samples from his fields in Point of Rocks - but he uses a private lab in Virginia and at a slightly higher cost than he paid the University of Maryland.

Money isn't the issue, though, Fry said. The problem with sending samples elsewhere, he said, is that an out-of-state lab's recommendations don't always match Maryland laws. Reliable soil testing is "kind of important to this problem we're trying to solve, to use less chemicals," he said.

Earl "Buddy" Hance, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said the lack of a state testing lab was a contradiction - and an inconvenience - but that most farmers had adjusted to the new labs.

To help with that adjustment, the Maryland Department of Agriculture created a cost-sharing program, though few people are using it. If a farmer is working on a nutrient-management plan, the state will cover 87.5 percent of the cost of soil testing. The minimum bill is $100. Since the lab closed, only 10 people have applied for the program, a spokeswoman for the department said.

Farmers have been testing soil long before nutrient-management programs, as a way to improve their crop yields and save on fertilizer, said Hance, who now sends his samples to a Delaware lab. "We don't have any money to waste."

Neither did the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The Maryland lab had never been self-supporting in its 50 years of operation, according to the news release issued by the college when it announced the lab's closing in June 2003. The state then began steering people to a list of out-of-state labs, private and at other universities, many of which charge more than the $6 to $8 a sample Marylanders had become accustomed to paying.

Many farmers, like Fry, test hundreds of soil samples yearly, so the costs can be considerable. However, not all labs picking up business from Maryland are making a profit from the added volume, particularly those that are still state-subsidized.

Del. gains clients

Karen Gartley, director of the University of Delaware's soil testing program, said her lab has always had some clients in Maryland, since many Eastern Shore farmers own land in both states. Before the Maryland lab closed, she said, about 8 percent of the 4,600 to 4,700 samples a year her lab receives came from Maryland. Now Maryland samples make up nearly a third of its business.

Gartley said her lab operates "on a shoestring," so she definitely understands the University of Maryland's budget problems, even if she doesn't agree with the way it solved them. Her lab charges $7.50 a sample, with the state subsidizing about a quarter of the cost. There is no additional charge for out-of-state samples.

The biggest losers, however, may be the University of Maryland's agriculture researchers. While farmers are able to get comparable service from private labs, the researchers need to know the results of all the soil samples taken in Maryland so they can reach conclusions about the health of the state's soils. With tests being conducted at scattered sites, they can no longer get this information easily.

Link is lost

Thomas W. Simpson, professor and coordinator of Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Programs at the University of Maryland, said closure of the lab removed an important link between the university and farmers "It's a service to farmers and landowners that also keeps you in tune with what's going on," he said.

Gartley said Marylanders are "doing a disservice to themselves" by not having their own soil lab. Despite the fact she is a Delaware state employee, Gartley said she spends a lot of her time dealing with Marylanders - even county extension agents who call her for advice.

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