Soil Preparation Services

SIC 0711

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

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.

The soil and topography of the land, along with the climate of an area, are important factors in this industry and determine 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 first decade of the 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 first decade of the 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 substance of 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 called 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported that U.S. farm expenditures on fertilizer, lime, and soil conditioners rose sharply in the later years of the first decade of the 2000s. Although the number of farms that used these products decreased slightly, from 1.2 million in 2002 to 1.1 million in 2007, total amount spent increased from $9.7 million to $18.1 million in the same time period. From the 1990s to the mid-years of the first decade of the 2000s, these conditioners accounted for 5 to 6 percent of total farm production expenditures. Including all types of chemicals and fertilizers, the NASS reported that 1.3 million farms incurred expenses amounting to $28.1 million in 2007.

Environmental concerns over fertilizer use became increasingly publicized in the first decade of the 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 and first decade of the 2000s, particularly regarding site remediation and containment, kept soil decontamination a major issue in the industry into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Organizations such as RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment) represented pesticide and fertilizer producers in an effort to educate the public about the advantages of fertilizers and dispel some of the myths about the dangers of their use.

Farmers struggled with rising prices of fertilizer and soil conditioners in the late years of the first decade of the 2000s and early 2010s. According to the USDA, the fertilizer urea, which contains 46 percent nitrogen, doubled in price from $276 a ton in 2004 to $552 a ton in 2008. Prices of phosphate rose even more during that time, from $276 a ton to $850 a ton. Potash experienced the biggest jump in price of all, skyrocketing to $853 a ton in 2009, up from $181 a ton in 2005. Part of the reason for the rise in prices, according to a 2010 article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, was the increased demand for phosphate and other chemicals in China and India, the two biggest consumers of fertilizer in the world. The United States, which used 23 million tons of fertilizer in 2007, was the third largest.

Few firms had soil preparation as their primary activity in the early 2010s. One of these was Waste Stream Technology Inc. of Buffalo, New York. Waste Stream was founded in 1986 and generated sales between $1 million and $2 million in the first decade of the 2000s. The firm was involved in the bioremediation of contaminated soils and provided environmental laboratory services for soil, water, and waste. Waste Stream was a subsidiary of the publicly held Sevenson Environmental Services of Niagara Falls, New York.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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