In December a new fee went into effect for processing peak-season soil samples with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Agronomic Services Division. This $4 fee was meant to encourage farmers to submit their soil samples early and lessen the backlog that occurs from December through March, when the lab receives tens of thousands of samples. About 60 percent of samples that come to the lab for the entire year come in during this time. Soil samples submitted before Thanksgiving were processed for free, and those submitted after the deadline would cost $4 for sample.
“Soil samples are an important management tool for farmers,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “It helps them determine what nutrients need to be added to maximize crop growth and yields, and also protect the environment. If you are not making use of soil sampling, I would encourage you to do so.”
Thousands of samples pour into the lab in Raleigh; so many that carts filled with samples line the halls outside the lab, waiting to be processed. With the volume of samples being so high during peak season, turnaround time could be up to nine weeks. This could leave farmers with only a short window of time to order fertilizer and apply lime.
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 processing time. “That is a plus though, because earlier sampling means that farmers will get their results back in plenty of time to supplement their fields before planting,” said Dr. David Hardy, section chief of soil testing for the Agronomic Services Division. The agronomic lab has analyzed more than 250,000 samples since July 1. “We are thankful that so many farmers got their samples turned in this November,” Hardy said. “Right now excess moisture is a factor because of the wintry weather the state has seen. If the soil is too wet to till, it is also too wet to sample.”
The division has been looking at others ways to meet the demands of growers and homeowners. A new pH robot has also been helpful in increasing daily processing capacity at the lab. The robot can process 720 to 900 samples a day. During the high end of the busy season, it was analyzing about 25 percent of daily samples.
For growers that want to submit a sample during peak season and avoid a longer wait, the lab sold 525 expedited shippers for $200 each. Each shipper held 36 samples and offered a guaranteed turnaround of 10 business days.
“The new fee was not meant to discourage people from taking soil samples,” Troxler said. “It was an attempt to get these critical samples in earlier so they can be useful and effective for farmers.”
Due to the earlier peak season, the soil lab is now back to its typical turnaround time of two weeks or less. The peak season fee will end March 31.
Homeowners don’t face the same production timetables as farmers. The best time for homeowners to submit samples is April through October, when lab turnaround time is typically two weeks or less. Samples boxes are available at Cooperative Extension offices and the Agronomic Services Division 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.