The United States is one of the largest producers of food crops in the world. We have a wealth of farmland that we use for major row crop operations, shipping food products all over the world. We are constantly inundated with reports that American industry is declining and we are facing huge trade deficits with other countries. It is important to realize that our farmers and agribusinesses throughout the country are the true reason why America has become the wealthiest nation in the world.
Of all of the plants that are grown in the United States, there is one in particular that allows us to shine above everyone else. I am referring to the soybean or glycine max, which has been actively cultivated for the past 4,500 years and is one of the most important crops currently being produced.
Soybeans have been used for millennia as an important food source for not only humans but livestock as well. Originating in China, soybeans come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. Over the past few thousand years, humans have been able to actively take part in the progression of soybeans from lanky, wild vines with relatively small seeds to the short, stout, vertically-standing plants that can be found everywhere throughout the country.
First introduced to the United States in 1765 by Samuel Bowen, an employee of the East Indian Trading Company, soybeans have increased in popularity almost every year. Currently, the United States is the largest producer of soybeans as well as the largest exporter of both the oil collected from the bean and the soybean meal that is a byproduct of the pressing process. The next two largest producers of soybeans are Brazil and Argentina. These large producers rely on China and the European Union to purchase their excess soybean harvest.
Over the past few decades, there has been a trend for small farmers to stop producing a wide variety of food crops and instead plant huge fields of soybeans. By focusing on a single crop, farmers are able to specialize their equipment towards soybean production as well as increase their total profit potential due to their ability to grow more soybeans for sale in richer, more developed countries. This practice, although often more profitable for individual farmers, decreases a nation's food independence and makes a nation's economy more sensitive to changing climate patterns and international food markets.
Many of the soybeans that are grown here in the United States are decedents of a group of plants that were collected between 1927 and 1931 by American scientists sent to Asia in order to strengthen America’s food supply. Soybeans, although actively cultivated and bred for thousands of years, have undergone a tremendous change over the past few decades, thanks to American ingenuity and new genetic alteration practices. Today’s soybeans are bred to withstand many of the prevalent diseases and insects that can plague crops. Current varieties also provide higher quality, more nutritious beans that can be used in the fresh foods market, processed foods arena and the increasingly popular biodiesel industry.
Soybeans are the most important and widely-used oil producing crops. When commercially harvested, Soybeans are pressed in order to remove the oil, leaving behind a soybean meal, which is extremely high in protein for its weight, making it extremely useful for not only human consumption but animal and industrial consumption as well. Soybean oil can be converted into printing ink and cooking oils while the protein rich soybean meal is used to feed livestock and increase the protein levels in foods such as breads and meats. Soybean by-products rich in proteins are also used to make fabrics like wool and cotton both stronger and softer. In today’s America, it is hard to find a commercially processed product that does not have a little bit of soybean in it.
The world produces over 220 tons of soybeans every year, in which 90 percent are used for non-food purposes such as animal feed and biodiesel products. Soybeans consist of roughly 40 percent protein and over 20 percent oil, which makes it easy to see why this plant is one of the most important commercially-cultivated crops in the world.
In the United States, most of the soybeans are produced in large monocultures with the aid of complicated planting and harvesting machinery. Over the next few years, soybean production is believed to continue its dominant path with more farmers relying on it to provide a lucrative cash crop. With continued breeding efforts, soybeans of the future are going to be increasingly resistant to pest pressures, produce heavier beans and provide greater quantities of oil per plant. Coupled with these new advances, soybean farming methods will be continually improved, allowing farmers to decrease the amount of resources required to produce these crops. New advances in no-till agriculture allow farmers to use cover crops such as rye to reduce weed pressure and reduce the need for expensive herbicides and patented seed varieties. Whatever the future holds for us as a country, new advances in soybean production and utilization will help make tomorrow a brighter place.
Here at Randolph County Cooperative Extension, we strive to help and educate the public in whatever way we can. If you have any questions about soybeans or any other agricultural crops, please feel free to contact us at the Randolph County Cooperative Extension office by phone at 336-318-6000 or in person at 112 W. Walker Ave. here in Asheboro.
Ben Grandon is Horticulture Extension Agent for Randolph County Cooperative Extension.