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A nearly year-long project to renovate and expand the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Soil Testing and Research Laboratory got under way recently with ground being broken for the new facility. The facility’s receiving and laboratory buildings will be replaced with new and larger ones and the existing office wing will be improved.

Mark Cochran, UA System Vice President for Agriculture, emphasized that the laboratory will not shut down during construction but will continue to provide its usual services during the construction. Cochran addressed a crowd of the laboratory’s supporters who gathered for a ceremony in Marianna.

“Our soil test analysis has been one of the fundamental services we provide to the state,” Cochran said. “It’s so essential in terms of proper fertility management making sure that our crops and plants have the necessary nutrients they need to grow. We want to make sure that we‘ve got the appropriate balance of environmental stewardship.

“This building that we are replacing and remodeling was constructed in the early 1950s with an annual capacity of 27,000 samples a year, which increased to 40,000 samples following a remodeling in the 1980s.” he added. “This construction project will enable us to expand our capacity to where we can handle up to 54,000 samples a month on a 14-hour workday shift. It also will enable us to get a more efficient flow to help us with the turnaround time so that the results can be returned to the clients within three weeks after the samples arrive in the laboratory.”

For more than 65 years the program has provided free statewide testing of soil samples submitted through Cooperative Extension Service county offices. The laboratory provides customized reports on soil nutrient levels and recommendations for fertilizer and lime applications for the desired use and location. In 2012, the laboratory tested a record number of soil samples for the sixth consecutive year when it analyzed 211,000 samples.

“With the increase in demand for our services, currently there are months when we have to handle 45,000 samples per month,” said Morteza Mozaffari, the laboratory director. “We think that with a new facility we can provide more efficient and faster service for farmers and homeowners.”

The construction will be conducted in phases to allow the laboratory staff to continue providing soil testing services during the project. SCM Architects, PLLC of Little Rock is the architectural firm for the project and Murdock Enterprises of Marianna is the construction contractor.

When the project is finished in August 2014, there will be 6,540 square feet of new building for a total of 14,820 square feet of new and renovated space, said David Cowan of SCM Architects. In the spring of 2014, the new laboratory area will be finished and the office wing will be renovated while the office staff works in a temporary facility on the premises. Cowan said the entire staff will be back in permanent offices by August 2014.

Calling the new facilities “much needed,“ Arkansas Soil Test Review Board member Warren Carter took note of significant changes in technology and management practices since the original structure was built.

“Having this lab will be a valuable asset to farmers,” Carter added. “The farmers have been very supportive of this program. They realize its value and its need.”

Nathan Slaton, Division of Agriculture soil testing director, noted that soil sampling by consultants and farmers is a seasonal chore that is most active from October through April, with the largest number of samples being submitted in October and November.

“What we’re really looking for from the new lab is to be able to put a large number of samples through the lab in a short period of time,” he said.

State Rep. Reginald Murdock of Marianna, who is also the president of Murdock Enterprises, expressed his gratitude for the economic impact the expanded lab will have on the Marianna area.

“We will hire a lot of local people that will have the opportunity to work on this project,” Murdock said. “There’s a lot of pride in that when you’re from here and you’re a part of the community. The Delta always needs these types of projects so the money can stay home to some degree.” £

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