Testing Soils Helps You Choose Fertile Farm Land

Bob Hixson provides valuable information on testing soils in order to choose the most fertile farm land to buy.

| May/June 1975

Land is land . . . or so it seems when you look out over the countryside. Often, though, subsistence or non-subsistence on a farm or rural commune depends on a factor you can't see at all: the quality of a tract's soils. There's a world of difference between gardens that yield good crops willingly, without fertilizers, and those that grow only poverty grass . . . between drainage fields that can absorb human wastes and those that send them bubbling back to the surface . . . between pleasant roads and driveways and those that turn to chunky peanut butter in the spring or after a heavy rain.

Drainage, acidity (which is closely related to fertility), soil texture and structure, stoniness, slope, presence of hardpan layers . . . all these characteristics can — and should — determine how man uses the land. Looking at a property reveals none of those important features. But then, it doesn't have to.

Testing Soils in Farm Land

Prospective buyers of acreage in rural areas are sometimes pleasantly startled to discover that easily accessible soils information exists for almost every piece of farmable property in the U.S. For over 70 years the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (SCS) has been measuring and mapping such data, tract by tract, throughout the country. By the end of 1972, 43 percent of the U.S. had been covered, with most of the uncharted area being federal forest and western rangelands.

Much of the information thus gathered has been published in the form of county soil surveys. Each directory in this series contains maps showing what soils are found on all the land in a given county, and descriptions of every type's unique characteristics. If such a guide is available for the area that interests you, it can be obtained free from the local office of the Soil Conservation Service (look under "U.S. Government" in the telephone directory).

Let's take a hypothetical example to show how the survey can help you size up rural property. Suppose you're looking for a place of your own — with a woodlot and maybe a pond — where you can do some subsistence farming: keep a few animals, plant a garden, raise enough crops for livestock feed and home use. You're driving around Tompkins County, New York (you like the area) . . . and you have with you a copy of the Tompkins County Soil Survey.

The survey's general soils map tells you that the best agricultural lands are found in the northern part of the county. These tracts are expensive, however, since they're already in intensive use by large, highly mechanized operations. So you're looking at some of the poorer properties (they're cheaper, and you don't intend to run a large modern farm anyhow). Still, there's "poor" acreage and worse acreage . . . and you do want to be able to grow some crops.

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