Maine Impact Week Spotlight: Soil Diagnostics – Healthy or Not?

The Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station (MAFES) Analytical Laboratory and Maine Soil Testing Service provides soil testing services to the general public and researchers. Testing soil provides information and recommendations for those who want to learn more about their soil quality and have a more successful growing season.

Over 16,000 samples are analyzed at UMaine’s lab annually. Customers include UMaine students and staff, as well as other colleges and universities, K-12 schools, local governments, consulting firms, the Forest Service, the Agricultural Research Service and the National Park Service. Commercial customers include producers of potato, blueberry, dairy, diversified vegetables, grains and more. Soil test results include nutrient content, soil pH, and soil organic matter level.

Organic matter is made from the decomposition of plant foliage and roots and any added organic material such as compost or animal manure. It holds nutrients such as nitrogen – which is needed in high quantities by plants. Organic matter improves a soil’s ability to absorb and hold water. The positive effects of soil organic matter on nutrients and water make it a very important indicator of soil fertility.

Soil organic matter also stores a lot of carbon, more than the carbon stored in the atmosphere plus the carbon found in all plant life combined. Researchers are studying whether increasing the amount of organic matter in soil can actually decrease the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and in turn, lead to advances in the climate crisis. Surprisingly, the ground that we walk on may provide one strategy to stabilize our changing climate.

Healthy soils are a fundamental part of producing healthy food and of sustaining healthy ecosystems for forest productivity, for wildlife and for many of the recreational activities we enjoy in Maine. Soil also has direct effects on human health beyond producing food. Although some human pathogens are found in soil, many important antibiotics come from soil organisms. There is a large amount and diversity of microbial life in soil. How it affects plants and humans is just beginning to be explored.

The next time you think of soil as “just dirt” remember that it is full of life and has a critical role in producing food and forest products, stabilizing climate and supporting natural ecosystems.

The Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station (MAFES) Analytical Laboratory and Maine Soil Testing Service is located in Deering Hall on the University of Maine campus. More information can be found on their website.

Be sure to tune in on Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. for a live presentation called,Soil Diagnostics: Healthy or Not?” to learn more about soil testing!