Country Science

One high school summer in the late 1960’s, I got a full-time job as an assistant at a Texas A&M agricultural research facility a few miles down the highway. It was a sprawling one-story building located by itself among fields as far as you could see in any direction. It was academic work in places like this that helped bring farming into the modern age. I was assigned to one of the labs, under a doctor and a PhD candidate who were studying how traces of chemicals endure in the soil.

My job was to do any menial job they did not want to do. I was the lab go-fer.

pretty flower, but bindweed strangles out the good plants

The project involved creating and collecting agricultural data. Surrounding the building were large fields of test crops. Our “station” was focused on herbicides — weed killers — and studied the effects of various commercial and proposed chemical agents, at a range of “doses”, on different types of crops, under controlled watering conditions. The university ran more such stations around Texas centered on other aspects of agriculture, a far-ranging and complex topic, for which they are well respected.

The idea was to learn the optimum safe amount of chemical to use that would kill the weed plant and not the crop plant plus would not leach into ground water.

Soil samples from various points in the fields were collected in heavy, double-lined paper bags — a string and tie-ring at the top for sealing — and location data marked on a grid on the side. These would come in a dozen or more at a time. We would log the receipt of a batch of these from a test field manually into a ledger book. This was before computers were on every desktop.

It took several days and multiple chemical processes on those dirt samples to determine the levels of certain chemicals in them. As data on each sample was determined, it was entered into the book by the doctors. Recording was rigorous.

Then I got to throw away the waste and clean all the glassware.

chemistry glassware

There’s more work in “lab work” than meets the eye. Setting up equipment, handling drums of chemical solutions, processing samples through numerous precise steps, measuring results, cleaning equipment. In our small lab, it was a continuous cycle. My job leaned more to the cleaning and handling, but I got to try everything.

As a community service, the research center accepted soil samples from area farmers who reported problems.

One day, we received such an independent sample.

A farmer had a large field that been productive for years yet, this year, nothing was growing on it. Almost literally, nothing. Not the planted crop. Few weeds. We tested the soil.

Hewlett Packard gas chromatograph

One of the machines used in a final step was a gas chromatograph. Results printed out on moving paper and a jagged ink line, sort of like a lie detector, except it indicated the level that several chemicals were present.

Normally, we dealt with very small amounts usually measured in parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb).

When the farmer’s test was first run, the doctor thought the equipment had failed as the pen “pegged out” at the top of the moving graph paper multiple times. He grumbled, looking back and forth between the output paper and the machine settings. Equipment failure would put the project behind schedule.

He rotated a dial a couple of clicks and was able to record a test… but scaled down multiple times. I don’t remember the actual numbers but it was in the Parts Per Thousands. There was a LOT of the tested agent present in the farmer’s soil. The doctors couldn’t believe it and talked energetically among themselves.

It turned out the previous year, the farmer got great results by applying a particular weed killer on his field. Using the “if a little is good, a lot must be better” philosophy, he doubled up this year.

Who came up with that saying? It doesn’t really work that way with many things at all.
And without supporting data, it’s lousy logic. Moderation is a better “blind” strategy.

Anyway, that approach doesn’t work well with weed killer (or fertilizer, for that matter). He “burnt” the soil.

The experts in the building thought it might be two or three years before that field would begin to support any meaningful growth again.

I should note this was a rare case and got a lot of attention. Most farmers are pretty smart and generally conservative. Indeed, it was not much earlier that it had been hard to get farmers to use ENOUGH of herbicides and fertilizers. There seemed to be agreement that this one had been careless. Also, in the years since, education in this field has increased. Most modern farmers are part-time chemists now.