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Rutgers soil lab begins busy season

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

NEW BRUNSWICK (April 15, 2016) — Things begin to heat up this time of year at the Rutgers University’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Soil Testing Lab.
It’s akin to the Christmas rush that many employees at retail outlets feel between Thanksgiving and the holidays.
Spring is typically the time of year when dozens of smart vegetable gardeners and farmers across the Garden State get their soil tested.
Dr. Stephanie Murphy, a native Ohioan, runs the soil-testing lab, not far from the Sears building on Route 1 in New Brunswick.
The soil testing lab at SEBS processes between 8,000 and 10,000 soil samples each year, Murphy said, and the biggest change she’s witnessed in her more than 30 years working with soil is the introduction of computers into the process to allow for far more accurate test results.
Typical turn-around time for a backyard gardener or farmer who has sent soil samples in to the lab for testing is five business days, Murphy said, however, “the one caveat with that is when we get to this period we’re coming in April and May, we get a large bulk of samples at the same time. Then our turn-around does stretch out. As much as Murphy and her staff try to get patrons to send soil samples in earlier in the growing year, that message often fails to get through.
“Ideally, we want to spread out our rush time so that it’s not all at once, and it’s very much like a holiday rush time around here,” said Murphy, who got interested in soils as a teenager with a backyard garden and pursued her passion at Ohio State University in Columbus.
For many years the soil testing lab at Rutgers was run by Dr. Harry Motto at smaller quarters off of College Farm Road, near the Rutgers Gardens, but since 2006, the soil testing lab has been situated in bigger quarters near Sears on Route 1. When Motto retired in the 1990’s, Murphy took over.
Rutgers has been in the business of testing soils since at least the 1930s, Murphy said. 
“At one time the soil testing services were probably covered by what the state or federal government paid Rutgers for testing, but things have been cut back over the years. If we didn’t charge for our services we wouldn’t be here,” Murphy said. The basic soil fertility test is $20.
Nine essential plant nutrients are measured: Phosphorous, Potassium, Calcium, Copper, Magnesium, Manganese, Zinc, Boron and Iron. The bulk of the clientele for the lab is smaller farmers and vegetable growers, but a large number of samples and fees come from topsoil blending companies, “and we do quite a bit of soil testing for the New York City parks’ department and other big buyers of top soil. It’s a quality control measure for them,” Murphy said.
Murphy added the local food and farm-to-table movements have made people more aware of the importance of soil characteristics and stewardship of the soil, be it in their backyard flower or vegetable plots or on a 250-acre farm.
“In some ways people are more aware of soils in general. Of course, farmers have always been aware of their soil characteristics and stewardship of the soil, they have a vested interest in preserving their soil and productivity, but to the general public, it’s come to their attention as well,” she said.
One big addition to the soil testing lab in recent months has been the Solvita respiration test, used to assess the biological health of a given soil sample. Another new piece of equipment in the lab is the Carbon/Nitrogen Analyzer. 
“One of the things we’ve been offering recently is this test that measures CO2 level coming from a soil sample when you wet it up. That serves as a measure of biological activity in the soil from microorganisms, and this is one of the first attempts at measuring the biology of the soil.
“Biology is something that in soil testing has not been in the forefront and we haven’t really had a good way to assess that in the lab until recently. It’s just a CO2 value, and we recognize it’s not the best kind of measurement, but it’s something we have at this point that we didn’t have 10 years ago; a way to assess the biological side of soil health,” she said. In other words, it is a way to show farmers how alive their soil actually is. For public soil testing labs, this is a new innovation.
Soil health is an easy thing to relate to, Murphy argued, just as is the relatively new focus in medicine on holistic health.
“We all know about our own health. It’s not just your heart or your lungs or your circulation; it all has to work together, and how different measurements can be made to assess our own health and people are understanding the same kinds of things apply with soil. You need the physical aspects of soil to make soil health, but you also need the proper biology and chemistry and physics to make good soil health.”
In general, Murphy said, the whole business of soil testing at Rutgers has become a much more exact science with the addition of new technology and computer measuring and monitoring of soil samples.
“We’ve become much more efficient and accurate with a whole battery of tests because computers are helping us do the adjustments and data transfers.”