DIY

Testing Soils Helps You Choose Fertile Farm Land

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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.
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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.
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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.

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.

You’re particularly interested in four farms (see image gallery figure 1).
Each is for sale at a price you can afford, and each has
some feature that especially appeals to you . . . an old
orchard, or the style of the farmhouse, or a stream running
through the property. But what about the soils?

Figure 2 shows the same farms with the soils units drawn in
and labeled as they would be on the detailed maps in the
survey. You’ll see, for example, that Farm No. 4 has a lot
of acreage marked VbB. The first two letters are a code for
the soil type’s name . . . in this case, Volusia. The third
letter — which can range from A to F — refers to
the class of slopes found in the mapping unit. Those marked
“B” on Farm No. 4 are gentle inclines of 2 to 5 percent.
(The code system formerly used on soils maps varied
among counties, but is now in the process of being made
uniform throughout the U.S. — MOTHER.)

Now, using the soil survey and the map in Figure 2 (see image gallery figure 2), you can
evaluate the soils on the four farms. Those of Property No.
1 are predominantly Bath (Ba) . . . and, says the survey,
very strongly acid, which means that fertility would be low
unless you limed the tract. Since the slopes are marked
“C”, you know that plowing them will be tricky and you’ll
have to protect against erosion.

On the other hand, Bath soils are well drained. You can
plow them early in the season, and underground water on a
tract of Bath soils is readily available to crops grown in
the permeable earth. This feature also means at least
moderate suitability for septic tank systems. Most of the
dirt road running by the property is on ground of the same
type . . . and again, the good drainage should be
appreciated in the spring.

Some Lordstown (Ln) soils are also found on the tract,
but — since these are on D and E slopes — they’re
too steep for tilling and should remain in forest.

Farm No. 2 has predominantly Mardin (Ma) soils. . . not
quite as acid as the Bath type, and therefore a little more
fertile. Also, since about half the land is on B slopes,
plowing on this property would be somewhat easier and
erosion less of a problem.

Mardin soils, however, are only moderately well drained and
are underlain by a fragipan . . . a hardpan layer
close to the surface that impedes downward drainage as
effectively as bedrock. Spring plowing would therefore be
delayed, and septic tanks — even with large filter
fields — would sometimes not function properly. The
road (also on Mardin soils) would most likely be gooey in
the spring or during wet weather.

Lordstown (Ln) soils predominate on Farm No. 3. Like those
of the Bath type, they are strongly acid . . . good for
blueberries and perhaps hay, but giving poor yields of row
crops.

Lordstown soils are well drained and have no fragipan, but
generally form in only thin layers over bedrock. This
impedes downward drainage and makes for stony fields.
Spring plowing would again be delayed, and some crops that
require the development of deep root systems could be
difficult to grow. The closeness of the surface to bedrock
also means that your sewage effluent wouldn’t percolate
down very far and could contaminate ponds, springs, and
wells.

The soils of Farm No. 4 are mainly Volusia (Vb). These are
only slightly less acid than the Bath and Lordstown types
and would still require a lot of lime to produce decent
crop yields.

The slopes on this farm are marked as B . . . not bad. But
wait a minute! Volusia soils, says the survey, are filled
with stones — some large — and if you wanted to
work the land with old-fashioned equipment, you’d have to
be prepared for trouble.

Even more serious than stoniness, however, is the bad
drainage. Volusia soils have a strong fragipan . . . which
means that you wouldn’t be able to plow until late in the
season because of waterlogged earth (and also that roads
and driveways would likely turn soft in wet weather).
During dry periods, the roots of plants will be unable to
penetrate the fragipan to get water . . . so drought can
also be a problem.

Well, then, which farm do you choose? The soils on all four
properties have some limitations. The Volusia and Lordstown
types on Nos. 3 and 4, however, are clearly poorer than the
Baths and Mardins on the other two tracts. Between these
two, my choice would be No. 1. Although the Mardin soils of
No. 2 are more fertile and on gentler slopes, the good
drainage of the Bath soils can simplify many aspects of
rural life: plowing, septic systems, and road maintenance.
Their acidity is high but can be corrected by liming, which
is much cheaper than tile-draining poorly drained land.

I hope I’ve convinced you by this time that a soil survey
can give you a great deal of valuable information about an
area or specific property you’re considering (or about a
place you already own). But what if the particular handbook
you need is still unfinished? It’s true that surveys have
not yet been published for some counties (such studies
often take 20 years and cost over a million dollars to
complete). Nevertheless, the data are on file in the local
SCS offices and elsewhere, and are available to the public.

If your county’s survey is not yet in print, the Soil
Conservation Service officials will show you the
unpublished maps and aerial photos and will help you
interpret them. And if the area you’re interested in hasn’t
even been mapped in recent years, the same experts can
direct you to old charts containing information which is
usually still useful. (The essentials certainly haven’t
changed significantly in the last 50 years. . . and there’s
hardly a county in the U.S. for which no soils data exist.)

An SCS representative, however, can do more than merely
distribute maps and printed material: He can — and
will — talk to you. A soils scientist once told me that
specialists in his field so rarely encounter a person who
is aware of soil differences that they’ll “talk the arm
off” anyone who does show an interest . . . and in my
experience this is true.

Soil conservationists have had extensive field experience
and innumerable contacts with farmers and other rural
landowners in their areas. Accordingly, they can provide
unique insights into what you can do with the land and
where you might attempt to do it. Very often, in fact,
they’ll be familiar with a specific property that interests
you.

Another good man to speak to is your county agent (who can
be located by looking in the telephone directory under
County Offices, Cooperative Extension Association). These
officials also distribute soil surveys, and most of them
are intimately familiar with the limits which the various
local soil types impose on farming and rural living. If
conventional agriculture is ailing or dead in the area
you’re investigating, the county agent can tell you why . .
. and he can probably advise you whether or not the same
reasons would likely defeat your own plans for the land.

Another source of soils information is the county planning
board. This body gets its data from the SCS, and — if
your contacts with the soil conservationist and the county
agent were fruitful — you won’t have to make the
additional visit… not for the same purpose anyway.

You may, however, want to call on the county planning board
for various other information . . . on sewage and water
facilities, the location of school districts, building and
health regulations, taxes, and areas where future
development is likely to occur. That last point can be
important. When you choose your rural loophole out of
modern living, you want to be sure it’s not in the path of
some superhighway the planning board has slated to be built
five years or so later.

In closing, I suppose I should admit that I myself didn’t
practice what I now preach. When my wife and I bought our
rural property —  an old farmhouse with six
acres — I knew nothing about the soils on the tract. We
took the place because we liked the house and the isolation
and the fruit trees. We had no intention of doing any
farming . . . and that was just as well, since I know now
that the land is unsuitable for the growing of all but a
few specialized crops.

We have some friends who are attempting a commune nearby,
and they also are largely prevented from farming by the
soils on their property. Both they and we live on roads
that drastically shorten the lifespan of the cars that try
to plow through the goo each spring. About all my septic
system is good for is to fertilize the raspberry bushes
that grow near it. (I haven’t asked the commune folks how
well their outhouses work.)

The fact is that we each have our own idea of what we want
from the land and what we think we’ll be able to do for the
earth in return. If I had it to do over, I’d still purchase
the place I live on: The old house and the isolation and
the fruit trees compensate for the road and the septic
system. My friends on the commune would still buy their
tract because the seclusion is adequate trade-off for the
limitations they have to cope with. But then, neither we
nor they are trying to make a living from the land. If we
were, the shortcomings of the soils on our acreage would
suddenly become harsh and immediate realities. For persons
who are trying to approach self-sufficiency, to ignore
soils differences in choosing rural property is to court
disaster.