How did the soybean become such a common crop in the U.S.?


By Anna Casey
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. www.investigatemidwest.org

This story was inspired by a question submitted at a Listening Post the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting held in August. Stuart Levy in Urbana, Illinois, asked us what would be needed for row crop farmers to switch from corn and soybeans to “something more sustainable.” We dug into that question, which starts with the unlikely circumstances that turned the soybean into a multi-billion dollar industry, and what this history might reveal about the future of U.S. agriculture.

 

 

Chris Murray is a fifth-generation farmer in Champaign County, Illinois.  Like most farmers in the heartland, he grows both corn and soybeans, but says it was a particularly good year for the bean.

“We’re still probably going to be in one of our top five best soybean years we’ve ever had,” Murray said.

Farmers in the U.S. grew more soybeans in 2017 than ever before, according to USDA data. Nearly 89.5 million acres were planted this year, an increase of more than 25 million acres over the last decade.  The plant, native to Asia, has become ubiquitous across the American Corn Belt, but the crop was virtually unknown to the region until the middle of the 20th century. And the soybean’s rise can be traced back to one enterprising Illinois industrialist, A.E. Staley.

Staley Home
A.E. Staley's family home in Decatur, Ill. Staley purchased the house in 1912, ten years before he transformed the town into the "soybean capital of the world." (The Staley Museum/Courtesy)

Staley was the first to process the soybean bean into oil and meal at his plant in Decatur, Illinois, in 1922, two years before the USDA even began tracking the crop.

“Staley said if you plant them, I will buy them. Then when he bought those beans, in order to make that a sustainable process for farmers and for himself, he needed to create a market for them,” said Laura Jahr, the director of the Staley Museum inside the soybean pioneer’s former mansion in Decatur.

By the late 1920s, Staley partnered with the University of Illinois and the Illinois Central Railroad to create a train known as the “Soil and Soybean Special” that made stops across the Midwest. The train had exhibits and presentations for farmers about the benefits of including soybeans in their crop rotations, and served as an attraction to entice farmers with an offer: If they grew soybeans, Staley would process them at his plant, where it would ultimately be used for protein in animal feed.

“That is what we can thank A.E. Staley for,” Jahr said. “Having that vision, and courage, to step into something new, and create something new.”

Now, soybeans are a $41 billion industry, and farmers across the country are even switching to growing them from other less profitable crops, such as wheat.

Gary Schnitkey, a professor in the school of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, says that it was primarily the use of corn and soybeans for protein in animal feed that generated the demand in the Midwest, and now other areas of the U.S.

“Soybeans, you know, it’s the protein,” Schnitkey said. “And until you find another protein source to compete with soybeans, those two crops are going to be the dominant two.”

But there are potential downsides to this lack of diversity in agriculture, Schnitkey says.

“There’s an argument for diversity in crops. So, if you have one crop that would have a blight, or a disease that came to largely impact that crop, you have the other crops to fall back on,” Schnitkey said.

And there are other environmental concerns with the two-crop rotation of corn and soybeans that have implications beyond the Midwest. When fields sit empty after harvest, around this time of year, it makes it easier for soil erosion and fertilizer runoff to occur. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the “dead zone,” an area of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico that can no longer support marine life, is in large part a result of U.S. agriculture.

A.E. Staley
A.E. Staley was the first to commercially process the soybean. (Decatur Herald & Review/Courtesy)

That’s something Steve John with the Agricultural Watershed Institute, a nonprofit in Decatur, is working to address.

“We’re interested in thinking about crops and cropping practices that improve water quality and soil health, reduce erosion, provide wildlife habitat, reduce greenhouse gases and all those other benefits that can come from agricultural lands if we manage them well,” John said.

John says his mission is not to get farmers to switch from corn and soybeans all together, but to plant cover crops in areas of their land, like slopped regions, that might not be easy to farm in the first place.

John’s vision is to turn 10 to 15 percent of Illinois farmland into to perennial grasses that can be used as food and bedding for farm animals, or be used to create what is known as biomass energy for heat. But that technology is still a long way off, and for farmers to diversify, there must be a market.

“We like to hold up some of the early soybean pioneers, both farmers like Charlie MeHarry and industrialists like A.E. Staley, as models for today and encourage the pioneers who are interested today in growing perennial crops,” John said.

Back on Chris Murray’s farm, he says there are other incentives to diversify, like cost and falling commodity crop prices.

“The margins are tight enough right now that even some of the multiple-generation farms are looking for different things they can be doing off the farm to subsidize some of their farming,” Murray said.

But for Murray, and many other farmers in the heartland, soybeans and corn are still where the demand is, partly because of the market that A.E. Staley helped create nearly a century ago.

“There’s been ups and downs, but overall it’s been really good business for us over the years,” Murray said.

Until the next Staley comes along, or expenses guide the next generation of farmers away from corn and soybeans, the two crops will likely remain king here in the Midwest.

Comments

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
Submitted by KellimWorthington on Tue, 01/09/2018 - 02:13

One of the general elements deficient in numerous people’s daily routine diet is fiber, which exists in great amounts in soybeans. UK Assignment Writing Help And now i came to know why soybeans become most popular in the US.

Submitted by Anna Shetty on Fri, 01/26/2018 - 03:26

My friend recommended this blog and he was totally right keep up the fantastic work! Thanks for your page! Your share information it helped me alot!
Do netgear router login

Submitted by Bo on Sat, 02/03/2018 - 10:50

| houses
| find a real estate agent
| real estate agent
| house for sale
| find a real estate agent

| FHA approved homes for sale
real estate agent
| find real estate agent
| country homes for sale
| cheap homes for sale
| beach house for sale| realestate
| best real estate agents
| real estate agent reviews
| Boca Raton real estate
| find homes for sale
| real estate
| realestate
| contemporary homes for sale
| Austin Texas real estate
| real estate lead generation
| find real estate agent
| how to choose a real estate agent
| top real estate agents
| real estate agents near me
| houses for sale in Florida
| how to find a real estate agent
| how to find a real estate agent
| historic homes for sale
| houses for sale near me
| home for sale
| real estate agents
| Charleston SC real estate
| find a real estate agent
| brand new homes for sale
| bay area homes for sale
| real estate agents
| finding a real estate agent
| finding a real estate agent
| homes for sale by map
| Florida homes for sale
| realtor leads
| big homes for sale
| real estate
| top real estate agents
| real estate
| beach houses for sale
| how to get real estate leads
| realestate com| craftsman style homes for sale
| local real estate agents
| realestate com
| homes for sales
| beach homes for sale
| beautiful homes for sale
| homes for sale
| real estate
| Alaska real estate
| real estate agent
| finding a real estate agent
| house
| Real Estate Leads
| Miami real estate
| real estate agents near me
| local real estate agents
| real estate
| real estate agent
| homes for sale DC
| foreclosure homes for sale
| foreclosed homes for sale
| Fannie Mae homes for sale
| beachfront homes for sale
| bank owned homes for sale
| real estate
| houses for sale
| how to find a real estate agent
| find real estate agent
| Charleston real estate
| real estate agent reviews
| real estate agent reviews
| Real Estate Leads
| homes for sale in Hawaii
| Florida real estate
| how to choose a real estate agent
| how to choose a real estate agent

Submitted by Sushila on Wed, 02/14/2018 - 03:00

The 2018 Academy Awards are just around the corner, and on Tuesday morning (Jan. 23), you can learn all the nominations first as they're announced via live stream. Watch Academy awards Canada