This category covers establishments primarily engaged in land breaking, plowing, application of fertilizer, seed bed preparation, and other services for improving the soil for crop planting. Establishments primarily engaged in land clearing and earth moving for terracing and pond and irrigation construction are classified in SIC 1629: Heavy Construction, Not Elsewhere Classified.
115112 (Soil Preparation, Planting and Cultivating)
The soil and topography of the land, along with the climate of an area, determines the type of farming that can be done. For example, wheat, corn, and other grains are most efficiently grown on level land where large, complex machinery can be used. These crops are commonly grown on the prairies and plains of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Kansas, and southern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Cotton, tobacco, and peanuts—all crops that require longer growing seasons—are primarily grown in the South. Most of the country's fruits and vegetables are grown in California, Texas, and Florida.
To promote growth and germination, soil must provide water, heat, oxygen, and essential nutrients. The soil must also be compressible enough to allow root penetration and plant growth. Among the most important operations in the crop preparation industry are tilling, liming, and fertilizing soils in preparation for crop planting.
Tilling is commonly done for several reasons: to eradicate crop residuals from previous plantings, such as corn stalks or wheat stubble; to destroy weeds; and to modify the structure of the soil to accommodate planting. Traditional tilling, which typically involves plowing, leaves less than 15 percent of plant residue on the soil surface. It temporarily aerates the soil and controls weeds, but over the long term, decomposing plants and compaction destroy the structure of the soil and actually reduces aeration.
To combat the problems resulting from conventional tilling, soil preparers increasingly turned to conservation tillage in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Conservation tillage systems leave at least 30 percent crop residue after planting and minimize water runoff and soil. The practices can stave soil erosion by as much as 90 percent. The most common types of conservation tillage are no-till, ridge-till, and mulch-till. The no-till system involves leaving the soil undisturbed from harvest to planting except for nutrient injection and controlling weeds primarily with herbicides. The ridge-till system also leaves the soil undisturbed from harvest to planting except for nutrient injection, but weeds may be controlled with herbicides and/or cultivation and the ridges are rebuilt during cultivation. The mulch-till system disturbs the soil prior to planting and accomplishes weed control with herbicides and/or cultivation. Many U.S. farmers also utilized reduced tillage methods, which leave 15 to 30 percent crop residue after planting. According to the Conservation Technology Information Center, no-till crops encompassed more than 55 million acres by the early 2000s. Conservation tillage not only saves farmers nearly 310 million gallons of fuel per year, it also reduces water- and wind-based soil erosion by nearly 1 billion tons annually. A new method of conservation tillage, non-inversion deep tillage, was found to boost cotton yields by more than 20 percent, according to a study released by the Agricultural Research Service in 2003.
Liming involves spreading agricultural lime, containing calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate, to soils with undesirably high levels of acidity, thereby increasing their pH levels. Optimal lime requirements depend on both the condition of the soil and the crop to be planted.
A fertilizer is any natural or synthetic origin that is spread in soils to supply one or more essential nutrients. Fertilizer carriers or materials that are mixed together and processed to produce fertilizer are mixed fertilizers. Fertilizers come in several forms: solid, liquid, or gas. The most commonly used fertilizers contain various concentrations of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported that U.S. farm expenditures on fertilizer, lime, and soil conditioners declined between 1997 and 2001, from $10.9 billion to $10.0 billion. These conditioners accounted for 5 percent of total farm production expenditures in the early 2000s, compared to 6 percent of total expenditures in the late 1990s.
Environmental concerns over fertilizer use became increasingly publicized in the 1990s and 2000s, particularly regarding the contamination of ground water from nitrogen supplies. Farmers began turning to crop preparation
services for custom application of fertilizers, as Federal and State laws required licensed applicators for many more chemicals. Domestic farmers also started using different fertilizer management methods, including foliar fertilization application—direct application of fertilizer to plant leaves—and fertilizing several times during the growing season rather than applying fertilizer once. It was thought that several smaller applications of fertilizer lessened the amount of nitrates seeping into the ground. Farmers also began to test and analyze soil and plants to better assess the need for fertilizing. Because of the low cost of nitrogen, however, farmers were hard-pressed to drastically cut their usage.
One important operation for the soil preparation services industry is the decontamination of soils. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are among the most problematic soil contaminants. A number of methods for VOC decontamination were tested in the 1990s, and the vapor extraction system was among the most effective of these, with 85 to 100 percent removal rates. The problems involved in accommodating environmental regulations passed in the late 1990s, particularly regarding site remediation and containment, suggest that soil decontamination will remain an important activity for the industry well into the 2000s.
There are few firms whose primary activity is soil preparation services. The largest of these is Waste Stream Technology Inc. of Buffalo, New York. Waste Stream was founded in 1986 and generated sales between $1 and $2 million during 2003. The firm is involved in the bioremediation of contaminated soils and provides environmental laboratory services for soil, water, and waste. Waste Stream is a subsidiary of the publicly held Sevenson Environmental Services of Niagara Falls, New York. Another key player in the industry is Soil Solutions located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
"Conservation Tillage Gives Record Yield." Implement & Tractor , May-June 2003.
"Drought Survival With Conservation Tillage." Agricultural Research, May 2003.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. "Farm Production Expenses." 2002. Available from http://www.usda.gov/nass/pubs/stathigh/2003/tables/economics.htm .