Lab work keeps N.C. agriculture going

by | Apr 8, 2020

“It’s not ideal, but it’s necessary.”

That’s how Dr. Colleen Hudak-Wise describes the changes that have been made at labs in the Agronomic Services Division in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As the director of the division, Hudak-Wise explained the adjustments had to be made to follow the public health advice to stay home and keep a distance from each other.

This image from 2013 shows how closely people work in the lab without distancing protocols in place.

Since much of the lab work is vital to keep North Carolina’s food chain and other agribusiness going, Hudak-Wise couldn’t just tell all employees to work from home. People have to be in the lab to get the work done. Also, some areas of the lab often have people working in very close quarters.

To spread people out, some microscopes were moved to other rooms. Again, it’s not ideal, but Hudak-Wise said it can work temporarily. To reduce the overall number of people in the labs – allowing them to spread out – the division also adopted different schedules for employees. There’s some staggering of schedules and also alternating workdays. An “A” team and a “B” team alternate days working in the labs. This cuts in half the number of employees there each day, but it also means that compared to normal, the lab can only do about half as much testing right now.

“We had to make a decision about what is essential to agriculture,” Hudak-Wise said. “Employees have helped develop schedules to come in earlier or stay later and be flexible because we knew we had to come up with something that would help with the social distancing issue.”

So right now, the Agronomic Division labs aren’t accepting any samples for testing that’s not considered essential. Routine soil testing for fertilizer and lime recommendations is not considered a priority right now. These are called predictive tests. Predictive lawn and garden soil samples shouldn’t be sent to the lab at this time. A limited number of predictive samples for agricultural fields are still being processed, but there’s no guarantee on the turnaround time.

Right now, the focus is on diagnostic soil tests. Those are tests done when a grower knows there’s problem and needs help figuring out what it is.

“It’s a diagnostic tool so that producers can take corrective action,” Hudak-Wise said. “If agriculture is to continue it’s important for growers to have that tool.”

Other essential testing that’s also still being done is related to nematodes and a few other special circumstances. (More details are on the Agronomics Division’s webpage.)

The nematode testing is vitally important for North Carolina to continue domestic shipment and foreign exports of sweet potatoes and certain wood logs and related products. There are 45 different types of plant-parasitic nematodes typically found in North Carolina. It takes a highly skilled person to properly identified the ones that could be a problem. It’s a complex process that involves microscopic identification and sometimes even examination of the genetic (DNA and RNA) material of the nematodes. Without that ongoing work in the lab, those domestic shipments and exports – and that agribusiness income – would be on hold.

“We depend on that lab to do that certification,” said Phil Wilson, the director of the Plant Industry Division, which oversees the regulation of those exports. “In 24 to 48 hours we’re able to determine if we can let that product go. It’s critical to the exporters in our state to keep that product going out.”

Hudak-Wise says that’s why it’s important for employees from lab technicians to administrative support to continue their work even during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the adjustments took a concerted effort to implement, the work must go on.

Team Excellance Award for N.C. Department of Agriculture Nematology Team
Commissioner Steve Troxler stands with employees from the Agronomic Services Division Nematology Team. Dr. Hudak-Wise is on the front row, second from right end.

“I’ve been very pleased with all my employees,” she said. “We have this commitment to the growers of NC. We’re going to come up with a solution so we can adjust our work schedule but still provide the essential data they need.”