Pouring soil into a testing pan
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In the Soils Laboratory, 1940s to today

From a broom closet to a modern laboratory, soil testing has been at the heart of Noble research and services for 75 years.

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It’s fitting that the first laboratory established at Noble Research Institute was a soils lab, providing a tangible way to help land managers learn about soil fertility and what their fields and gardens needed to thrive. Soil tests remain a valuable tool for today’s producers as they manage crop nutrients and make land management decisions.

Some things have come a long way since the late 1940s. M.K. “Bud” Patterson, Jr., Ph.D., who served as an intern starting in June 1948, later recalled grinding soil samples by hand in a broom closet and using an open-flame distillation method to analyze samples for nitrogen. The process generated so much heat that they did it at night in their underwear.

Modern soil testing equipmentMason Stewart, an ag services and resources assistant, grinds soil samples for testing.

One technology upgrade came with a machine-driven mortar and pestle, patented in the late 1950s and still in use today to grind small batches of soil samples to a uniform particle size. It’s a large, upright machine that functions like a drill press, with a lot of reaching, pushing and bending on the part of the operator during the four minutes it takes to grind a 1-pint soil sample, says Tabby Campbell, supervisor of Noble’s Ag Services and Resources Core.

Today, most of the 8,000 soil samples sent to Noble from producers and gardeners and 6,000 internal research samples each year are processed in two minutes per pint with a push of a button on a modern table-top grinder. The ground samples are sent out to contract laboratories for testing analyses.

While the basic elements of soil being assessed have not changed in the past 75 years, there are new ways of looking at soil that go beyond the standard nutrients and into the biological aspects of soil health. Tests like the Haney soil health test also look at nutrients for microbial consumption, based on how much carbon and nitrogen is available, and a carbon- dioxide respiration test in the lab.