American Agricultural Laboratory found economic gold digging in the dirt
A look inside American Agricultural Laboratory Inc., owned by Kevin and Christine Grooms, is a science enthusiast’s dream as chemists and biologists test soil, water, fertilizer and animal feed samples from around the world using the latest in scientific technology.
Glass beakers, high-tech scientific equipment and workers in white lab coats now occupy the space where customers used to browse for toasters and toilet paper at the former Alco store in McCook.
The nearly 30,000 square-foot lab is three times as large as the Grooms’ former lab, which they had slowly outgrown since 2007 when they purchased the business from founder Bob Olsen.
“We’ve more than doubled our production since we purchased the business,” Christine said. “And, we’d like to double it again, and now we have the space to do it.”
The Grooms’ commitment to quality results, customer service and quick turn-around times of two to three days is a big reason why the business has grown.
With customers in neighboring Kansas and Colorado, south to Mexico and Central America, and west to California and Oregon, the Groomses could have moved their business anywhere when they needed to expand their physical space.
McCook gave the lab a reason to stay
With the help of local and state economic development leaders and the McCook National Bank, American Ag Lab decided to stay in McCook and relocated to the former Alco building at 700 W D St. in January after seven months of renovations.
“They really, really wanted to make sure we stayed here,” Christine said. “With a lot of our clients in Kansas or Colorado, it was kind of enticing to move to one of those states. We didn’t want to, but we did consider it.”
The McCook Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) provided a façade improvement grant and other incentives and connected the Groomses with the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC) and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (NDED).
American Agricultural Laboratory is the type of business that economic developers want to encourage because it attracts “new money,” or dollars from consumers who live outside of the area.
Charlie McPherson with the NBDC helped American Agricultural Laboratory write a business plan, which led to a successful application for a $297,060 NDED Sites and Building Development Fund Grant to purchase and renovate the Alco building and keep the growing business in Nebraska and in McCook.
American Agricultural Laboratory was then recognized as the NBDC’s 2015 Champion of Small Business.
“We were honored to be nominated, and when we found out we had won the award, we were really humbled,” Kevin said.
American Agricultural Laboratory is just one of six agricultural testing labs in Nebraska and one of 26 accredited soil testing labs in North America.
Customers range from backyard gardeners to farmers, agronomists, municipalities, fertilizer plants and co-ops. American Agricultural Laboratory recently expanded the number of crops it can make fertilizer recommendations on from 91 to 152 crops, including everything from pumpkins and pistachios to hops and malting barley.
About 80 percent of its work is testing soil to help farmers maximize yields while being good stewards of the environment. A soil test might reveal that a farmer needs to add more fertilizer to maximize yields or less fertilizer to save money. Making educated decisions based on science is especially important for producers in today’s farm economy.
“There’s been a lot more emphasis on the soil testing and maximizing yields in recent years,” Kevin said. “At the rate the world population is growing, the food supply must double by 2050.”
It’s rewarding for the Groomses and their staff to play a part in helping feed the world.
“In the last 12 months we provided testing for nearly 7,000 distinct producers,” Kevin said. “Applying the math, the data we supplied helped the agronomists, cooperatives, farm managers and family farmers make the best decisions on how to produce enough to feed well over one million people.”
American Agricultural Laboratory is also Department of Health and Human Safety certified to test drinking water samples for home owners with private wells and municipalities to ensure the water is free of coliform bacteria, e-coli and high nitrates.
Employees and rural Nebraska
Bob Olsen, Ph. D., first started the lab in 1976 under the name of Olsen’s Agricultural Laboratory, Inc. Kevin, who is originally from Valentine, started work there after he graduated from college in 1986 with degrees in chemistry and biology. Christine, originally from Canada, has a degree in animal science and ag business and began work at the lab in 2004 after gaining experience in other labs.
When Kevin started at the lab, he was one of eight employees. That number grew to 12 by the time the Groomses purchased the business. The business now employees 17.
Employees at American Agricultural Laboratory typically have bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, entomology or agronomy, and some even have master’s degrees. The lab also employ two full-time IT workers who helped develop an internet client software that allows customers to login to receive faster results and recommendations. The recommendations can be merged into precision agriculture controls in farmers’ sprayers to show exactly how much fertilizer should be applied to different parts of the field. Test results can also be retrieved on smart phone apps.
Christine said it can be difficult to recruit employees to rural Nebraska, but she is hopeful that hiring qualified staff will soon become easier as she is starting to see more young families wanting to live and work in small communities.
“It’s a great place for families to come to,” Christine said. “In the last few years, there seems to be more people wanting to come to where they grew up or to a rural area. I think they are just wanting to get out of the city. The benefits of the city aren’t outweighing the benefits of a rural community, where there is a smaller class size and knowing your children are safer and with more space to play and be outdoors.”