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Digging the “Real Dirt” at an Historic USDA Laboratory

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

1935:  It was the year when baseball legend Babe Ruth hung up his spikes, and New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps extended a helping hand to a nation devastated by the Dust Bowl and gripped by the Great Depression.

On the leafy campus of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University),  a handful of USDA scientists were busy establishing a research facility that would eventually play a role in such diverse ventures as creating a new scientific discipline called “soil dynamics” and helping develop a moon vehicle for astronauts.

Originally known as the Farm Tillage Machinery Laboratory, the facility today is called the National Soil Dynamics Laboratory (NSDL).  But just as a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, the laboratory has been world-famous from the beginning for its 13 historic soil bins, each about the length of a football field, used for testing the impact of farm equipment on various soil types from sand to clay.  Operated since 1953 by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, this lab’s findings have influenced the design of almost all modern agricultural equipment.

And this lab’s place in history extends beyond farm equipment:  During World War II, the facility was shared with the U.S. Army, which conducted research there on traction of military equipment.  During the 1960s, the lab’s scientists helped design a “sea plow” used to bury trans-Atlantic communication cables.

Today’s NSDL research includes studies on how different farm management practices can affect the soil’s ability to store carbon from the atmosphere, thereby slowing increases in greenhouse gases and helping reduce global warming.

From celebrating the Sultan of Swat to helping save the planet:  That’s a big chunk of history encompassed in one laboratory where scientists spend their days “digging the real dirt.”

Aerial view of the National Soil Dynamics Laboratory’s 13 historic soil bins, where studies of the effects of machinery on different soil types have influenced the design of almost all modern agricultural equipment.  Photo courtesy of Joe Mazzone, Ace Aerial Photo LLC, Auburn, AL

Aerial view of the National Soil Dynamics Laboratory’s 13 historic soil bins, where studies of the effects of machinery on different soil types have influenced the design of almost all modern agricultural equipment. Photo courtesy of Joe Mazzone, Ace Aerial Photo LLC, Auburn, AL

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