EAST LANSING, Mich. (Michigan News Source) – When the pandemic hit, Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Orders had closed down the MSU Extension offices but not the MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory (SPNL), which was deemed essential. However, without the Extension offices being open and able to offer the soil testing to rural farmers and businesses in Michigan, the number of testing samples went down and so did the profits of the laboratory.
MSU Deputy Spokesperson Dan Olsen said, “Expenses over the last four years have averaged about $296,000 annually with the only income for the lab coming from the soil tests.”
Sources close to the laboratory say that the lab does not receive funds from the University, was denied COVID-19 funds after applying and has not been able to secure any of the grant money available from the college’s Agricultural division or from the state.
Because of the loss of funding and other issues, the lab will cease operations on December 31, 2022.
In a letter sent to College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) faculty and staff on August 24th, AgBioResearch Director George Smith; MSU Extension Director Quentin Tyler; and Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences Chairperson Brian Horgan said, “MSU has provided soil chemical analyses and interpretation since the 1920’s. This has been a valuable service for the Michigan agricultural community, homeowners and MSU researchers. Unfortunately, due to declining soil test samples over time and the availability of similar services from commercial labs, it has been decided to close the MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Lab (SPNL) at the end of 2022…MSU personnel are working on alternate options for Michigan residents to use for soil testing and can also assist in directing people to alternative soil testing laboratories to complete their soil testing needs.”
Olsen said that they had also reached out to customers about the closing in September. He went on to say, “During that time we’ve been working to identify a commercial partner to provide the soil testing for us and then with that partnership we expect that to be available in the Spring 2023. The price will be similar to what customers currently pay through MSU. This partnership allows us several things…We’ve had a steady decline in the volume of soil tests over the last ten, fifteen, twenty years…we had probably about 10, 15, 30,000 test samples coming through each year. That declined to about 9,100. So a significant decline there. And our equipment is getting dated so this partnership with the commercial lab allows us to use the latest and greatest technology to do soil testing analysis…Then that soil test analysis comes back to MSU experts so we can work with the customer to explain to them what the soil testing results mean and how to remediate their soil for their crop grow.”
He compared the new process to a person getting bloodwork done at their doctors’ office where they send out the sample to a commercial lab and it comes back to the doctors’ office for a follow-up on what the tests mean. Olsen said, “Instead of MSU providing the testing of the soil sample, we’re getting the results back to us and we’re providing the education and expertise to our customers. We’re just stepping back from the actual soil testing itself.”
In this scenario, customers would send the soil sample directly to the commercial lab and then the lab would send the results to an MSU Extension office so they could discuss the results with the customer. This service would be offered at no charge.
Olsen said the customer will still get the “expertise and education from Michigan State University” but what is changing is that “customers will now be providing their test sample to a commercial lab” and then coming back to MSU who will provide that “expertise and guidance on how to move forward.”
When asked how customers would know who to initially send the sample to and how to get the analysis from MSU, Olsen said, “We’re working through the logistics of this partnership the commercial lab…After we’ve mapped out and gone through the logistics, we’re going to communicate that out through our customers just as we communicated that our lab was closing at the end of this year.”
When it was made known that the lab was closing, there were many upset and disappointed customers who contacted MSU about the situation. There are also worried staff who are concerned about being unemployed.
When asked how many of the staff from the lab would be let go, Olsen said, “none.” He went on to say, “We don’t make lightly decisions to modify the services that we offer to the public or that impact the lives of our valued College of Agriculture and Natural Resources staff members. Although it is no longer feasible to continue operating the lab, we are supporting our employees impacted by this transition as they explore different opportunities within the college and university.”
If you are wondering what the laboratory does exactly, the website breaks it down for you. It says, “MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory (SPNL) operates as an integral part of the Michigan State University providing support to teaching, research and extension programs. The SPNL offers a variety of analytical services on samples of soil, greenhouse growth media, composts, plant tissue, water and other materials related to the growing of plants (crops) received from the commercial and part-time farmers, greenhouse operations, golf courses, homeowners, consultants, researchers and others.”
A source close to the lab told Michigan News Source that the lab also does Ohio State’s soil testing since their own lab closed a couple of decades ago and that the many golf course samples they do in the winter months are from across the entire country. In addition, they receive samples from around the United States from Alumni and research samples for MSU and other colleges across the nation. The source added that recently, the run-off fertilizers in Lake Erie that has been an issue had people from that area sending samples to the MSU lab as well.
For those who don’t know the history of MSU, it was started out to be an Agricultural school in 1855. In fact, the original name of the college was the “Agricultural College of the State of Michigan.” It was the first agricultural college in the United States and many still consider it to be an educational leader in the country in the agricultural space. The soil lab itself has been around for more than 100 years.
One of the lab customers is Karen Campbell who has used the lab for her personal gardening for many years. She is also an alum of MSU and a parent of a student. She is extremely disappointed with the lab closing and had sent the president’s office a long letter about it. In her letter, she pointed out that the roots of MSU are in agriculture and that it’s about “making a difference in how we take care of our land and natural resources.” She told them that the average person doesn’t understand that the lab was not an AG grant recipient that taxpayers are helping to fund but those grants weren’t offered for the lab.
Michigan News Source also heard from Ned Birkey, MSU Extension Educator Emeritus with Spartan Ag, about the lab closure. Birkey said, “The closure of the 100+ year old MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory has been kept quiet to most of Michigan agriculture since it was announced internally on August 24.”
Birkey said, “The Michigan Farm Bureau and the 30 +/- commodity groups in Michigan were not aware of this decision and had no part in any discussions about the viability of the lab. Labs like this do NOT go “out-of-date” overnight. In my opinion, someone(s) was “asleep at the switch” to allow this to happen. And an excuse that the Lab Director may be retiring is bogus, as you simply hire new staff.”
Birkey continued,”I delivered some soil samples to the lab on Wednesday and the staff there said they were never consulted about the viability of it or how to make upgrades or changes. Before I retired, we used to order the minimum number of soil sample boxes to get the maximum discount (400 boxes). We would use all of these in about one year. The last time I stopped in the same county office, they only had a small handful there.”
However, Birkey didn’t stop there. He added, “Although commonly referred to as the MSU Soils Lab, it actually tests a lot more; soil analysis, including pH; secondary and micro nutrients, some heavy metals such as lead and arsenic; Pre-sidedress nitrate tests; peat; water analysis; compost analysis; limestone analysis; corn stalk analysis; saturated media for artificial growth media; soil particle size, sand classification and Soiltex pH kits.”
Birkey also asked, “Why does MSU financially support the Plant Clinic but not the Soils Lab?”
When he was told of the new plan to use an outside commercial lab for the testing, Birkley said, “It is a shame that MSU is doing this without working with any commodity or farm groups in Michigan. Past practice on many things has been to partner with others involved in agriculture, as part of the Land Grant mission.”