UVM closes ag testing lab

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(Host) The University of Vermont is closing a laboratory that tested soils and forage crops for Vermont farmers.

The school says the lab was losing money, and that the testing can be done by other facilities.

But some say the lab closing may raise a larger question about the school’s ties to agriculture.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) In the last year, the UVM lab processed about 12,000 soil and plant samples sent in by farmers and gardeners.

The lab looked at the chemical components of soil and forage crops. Growers use that information to figure out how to get better yields.

But Rachel Johnson, the dean of the college of agriculture and life sciences, says the lab also competed with private companies. It’s been losing money, so administrators made the decision to close the lab this week.

(Johnson) We decided that we needed to re-organize and examine the testing that we were able to do in order to meet the needs of the agriculture community in a way that was financially sustainable at the University of Vermont.

(Dillon) UVM has discontinued forage testing. It will still handle soil and manure testing, but samples will be sent to the University of Maine for chemical analysis.

The results will then interpreted by UVM staff for local farmers.

The decision to close the lab was made after a year of evaluation. Despite raising fees over the last year, Johnson said the lab was losing about $5,000 a month.

She said two staff members resigned recently. The lab’s director is being laid off.

(Johnson) It’s not a matter of how much money we’ll be saving. It’s a matter of how much money we won’t be losing.

(Dillon) But there is concern that the closing of the lab may indicate a lack of commitment to Vermont agriculture. David Zuckerman is an organic farmer in Burlington who also chairs the House Agriculture Committee.

(Zuckerman) It is an unfortunate signal in terms of the future of agriculture in Vermont. Do we see the land grant institution being directly connected to the farms? Or is it going to be a pass-through? And I would hope from an agriculture perspective, and an institutional perspective, that they we would make sure to consider that as their decision goes forward.

(Dillon) For farmers, soil and forage testing is essential – not just to get the most out of the land, but to safely manage the waste generated by dairy cows.

Soil tests are a key piece of information for nutrient management plans. These plans look at how much manure can be spread on fields, and how to keep the waste out of rivers and streams.

Jim Bushey is with Bourdeau and Bushey, a Middlebury company that sells fertilizer and feed to farmers.

(Bushey) The issue with the lab as I see it is one that it’s part of the ag community and has always been a service to the ag community, and it’s one that will be missed.

(Dillon) Bushey says he’s heard from farmers who worry that the lab closing means UVM is moving away from agriculture.

(Bushey) They feel that it’s another part of the community that is going away.

(Dillon) Johnson, the Ag school dean, says she’s heard a fairly positive reaction from farmers. She says UVM extension service will work with farmers to explain the changes.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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