Midwest Laboratories helps its customers make smart decisions based on analysis of soil, water, and plant tissue samples. In this interview, field representative and third-generation farmer Ashley Babl talks with Irrigation Leader about the company, its offerings, and the importance of customer services.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Ashley Babl: I’ve been involved in farming my entire life. My parents farm nearby, and after high school, I had this vision of getting as far away from the farm as possible. But during college, I realized that my heart was at the farm. I went to school for agricultural business and agronomy. I was president of the diversified ag club and a member of the Nebraska Leadership Education/Action Development program, which develops young agricultural leaders. Throughout all those activities, my love for agriculture intensified. I was just finishing up a temporary teaching position at my alma mater when Brent Pohlman, the CEO of Midwest Laboratories, offered me a work-from-home position as a field rep. Our family had been a client of Midwest Laboratories, so I had a lot of respect for the company. It cared about every single account, whether you submitted one sample a year or thousands. I began working for Midwest Laboratories as the organic and specialty crop field rep; I take care of the lawn and garden customers as well. I’m able to help clients every day and help grow our farm operation at the same time. It doesn’t ever feel like work.
Irrigation Leader: So you’re still an active farmer today in addition to your position with Midwest Laboratories?
Ashley Babl: Yes. I have a row crop operation as well as cattle.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Midwest Laboratories.
Ashley Babl: Midwest Laboratories started in 1975 primarily as an agricultural soil laboratory. Since then, through client requests and industry demand, it has expanded into many different areas. The lab currently provides reliable and defensible third-party testing services to the agriculture, nutrient management, pet food, animal feed, environmental, food and beverage, and fuel industries.
Irrigation Leader: Who are your clients, and what are the most common soil, plant tissue, and water tests you do?
Ashley Babl: A variety of clients, from individuals to municipalities, seek us out. On the soil side, our most popular package in recent years has been our basic package, the S1A, which includes buffer index, cation exchange capacity, percent base saturation of cation elements, soil pH, organic matter, available phosphorus, calcium, exchangeable potassium, hydrogen, and magnesium. Another popular soil test is the S3C. This package has become increasingly popular due to demand for a more in-depth analysis at an affordable price. It includes everything I just mentioned as well as nitrate nitrogen, soluble salts, sodium, excess lime, and all the micronutrients.
On the water side, one option is a W3 water quality test for drinking water. It includes total coliform, total hardness, manganese, E. coli, conductivity, sulfate, sodium, iron, chloride, calcium, and total dissolved solids. For irrigation, we typically run a W3A package, which includes total hardness, conductivity, total dissolved solids by calculation, pH, calcium, chloride, fluoride, iron, magnesium, manganese, nitrate nitrogen, sodium, and sulfate.
At Midwest Laboratories, we have seen increasing numbers when it comes to plant tissue testing. We view the plant tissue test as a check engine light. We’ll run it if we’re starting to see some stress in the plants. It tests for boron, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, sulfur, and zinc. We also run the shared insights tissue testing program during the growing season for corn. It takes 12 weeks. It’s always a good idea to do that in conjunction with a soil test to make sure the proper nutrients are available in the soil and are getting to the plant.
Irrigation Leader: In most cases, are farmers running these tests simply to improve their operations, or are they doing them to comply with various federal, state, and local requirements?
Ashley Babl: I think there’s concern from all sides. Farmers are really feeling the pressure from rising input costs and mediocre grain prices. They’re trying to maximize their dollars. By running these tests, they can make sure they’re using what is currently in the soil. Different programs offer incentives as well.
Irrigation Leader: In most cases, do people send you samples that you test at a central location?
Ashley Babl: Yes. Individuals and soil sampling companies send us samples. The soil sampling companies will pull a batch of samples for their clients and send it to us for testing. We will then run the analysis and send back the results.
Irrigation Leader: Have you seen any changes recently in what people want to be tested? Are there increasing concerns about any specific constituents?
Ashley Babl: On the soil side, we have been running our S3C more often. That test gives customers a good picture of what’s going on in their soil. As people learn about the importance of micronutrients and how they play a role in production, they are willing to spend money up front to get a more complete analysis in hopes of eliminating costs down the road.
Our pet food and food labs have seen significant growth year over year. Given the buzz over genetically modified organisms and concern over what goes into our food and our pets’ food, these two areas are where I don’t see things slowing down any time soon.
Irrigation Leader: How large is your service area?
Ashley Babl: We serve the entire United States and parts of Canada and some other countries. With our central location in the United States, samples can get to us rather quickly. We’re not focused on being bigger than anybody else—we strive to provide quality analysis that is repeatable. We also pride ourselves on our quick turnaround time. The longest most people wait for a soil analysis is 3 business days. We’re working to upgrade our internal systems to shave more time off. We want each customer to feel like they’re the most important person to us, even if they just send one sample, because they and the relationships we build with them are essentially what drives our company.
Irrigation Leader: Is there anything you would like to add?
Ashley Babl: We’re one of the few laboratories that provide the pricing of their tests up front. We try to be as transparent as possible, because we don’t want to create any mistrust. As growers and industry people ourselves, we try to build and support those relationships, because that is what this company was built on. We want the agriculture industry and everything it touches to continue to be strong so that it can support our growing population.