Letter Re: Judging Soil Quality When Selecting a Retreat Property

Mr. Editor:

My wife and I are nearing retirement and we are considering buying a piece of land for both our retirement home and for our retreat if the times get “interesting.” This land is in Oklahoma, which currently has reliable rains but was “Dust Bowl” country, back in the [19]30s. How can I know for sure whether or not the soil is still good, or if it is “played out”? Thanks, – B.K.

JWR Replies: You’ve raised an important issue. The importance of soil quality in the event of a true “worst case” should not be overlooked. As S.M. Stirling so aptly described it in his science fiction novel “Dies The Fire“, soil quality is not crucial in modern mechanized agriculture. If an acre of ground produces 5 bushels of wheat versus 12 bushels of wheat, it is not of great consequence when you are cultivating hundreds or even thousands of acres from inside the cab of an air conditioned $40,000 tractor, or a $70,000 combine. However, if someday you are reduced to traditional pre-industrial manpower or horsepower, where cultivating just a few acres will require monumental exertion, then the soil quality will make a tremendous difference–between feeding a family (or a community), and starvation. Therefore, have the soil analyzed before you buy a retreat property! Determining the soil types within a region should be your first step–in fact even before you talk to the first real estate agent. Simply buying lunch for the soils specialist at the local Agricultural Extension office might be a valuable investment. That lunchtime conversation will probably tell you much more about your intended new locale than several days spent talking with a real estate agent. (They don’t earn commissions by mentions the pros and the cons of a community.) On your first scouting trip to your proposed retreat region, call the USDA Agricultural Extension Office, and ask to talk to a soils specialist at the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) desk. Note that the NRCS was formerly called the Soil Conservation Service.

Basic soil test kits are available by mail order. More sophisticated soil analysis services are also available by mail (where you mail soil samples to a laboratory.) Some universities offer free soil testing for state residents, but this often must be handled through the local NRCS office. Other universities will test soil samples for a fee, regardless of state residency.