Western Laboratories Inc., a major player in soil and crop testing, keeps growing as established clients tap the Parma, Idaho, company for additional work, including new types of evaluations.
A farmer-like enthusiasm for the calculated risk helps, too.
“You grow with the customers and have to be proactive in your expectation of where agriculture is headed,” said Harry Kreeft, a nematologist and plant pathologist. “That is what we do at Western Laboratories very well.”
The company combines high-volume testing — it can process up to 1,000 samples a day — and quick delivery of results with an eagerness to prepare for expected future demand.
For example, Western is tapping advancements in technology to make traditionally big-farm solutions, such as a special type of mapping, available to smaller producers.
And the company is making sure it is prepared to offer at least one test that could benefit hay exporters in the future.
“I just want to be ready,” Kreeft said.
He referred to a project to develop testing to estimate the percentage of genetically modified organism contamination in alfalfa hay in light of China’s zero-tolerance policy.
“My gut feeling is they cannot sustain that,” Kreeft said. If China ultimately eases the policy, the market would open to additional participants and “it will be increasingly important to be able to (lab) test the percentage of GMO contamination in alfalfa.”
The many other tests that 45-year-old Western Laboratories performs can involve soil; plant tissue; water; manure; fertilizer; and the presence of GMOs, disease and non-beneficial nematodes. The company has customers worldwide.
Kreeft is a pioneer in variable-rate fumigation to control nematodes. Instead of fumigating fields uniformly, the method tests soil in 1- to 2-acre grids and applies precise amounts of fumigants where necessary. Grids each become unique fields for analysis, and collectively can be mapped to show nematode hotspots and non-problem areas.
Western Laboratories in 2018 is on track to produce more grid samples than it has in previous years, he said. That’s largely because the approach — which includes lab analysis and custom recommendations — got more affordable to small operations thanks to technological advancements.
“It all became much easier and much faster,” Kreeft said.
Western is doing more hops testing lately, he said, as that industry grows in the region.
Other growth sources include water testing for E. coli and disease testing — on the rise as more disease types can be evaluated over shorter periods, Kreeft said.
More of the company’s roughly 3,500 customers are increasing tests in number and frequency, he said. Last year, onions were tested for salmonella and E. coli, including the 0157 strain. This year, onions are tested additionally for Shiga toxin-producing strains of E. coli.
Western tests many crops, but onion and potato testing represent some 80 percent of annual revenue, Kreeft said. Many of these customers opt for a monitoring program that includes testing soil and plant tissue weekly.
Summer soil testing focuses on how much nutrition is available to the plant daily as the crop goes through peak growth and heads toward maturity. Tests at other times of year aim to estimate how much fertilizer a future crop will need.
“However, if you do not run the soil-solution test in the summer, you do not know if the soil releases the daily requirements for crop needs,” Kreeft said.
Tissue testing indicates a crop’s health and fertility needs, while soil testing “tells you how much fuel is in the tank,” Kreeft said. “If the soil is deficient in a certain element and the plant is not, we recommend fertilizer to avoid the plant becoming deficient.”
Western has an office in Blackfoot, in eastern Idaho. Agronomist John Taberna Jr. is based there. He is the son of company founder and owner John Taberna, a soil scientist.