Changing Crops, Soybeans

Changing Crops – Soybeans

crops_0301World War II and its aftermath changed what had been a little known forage crop into a major cash crop grown across much of the nation and exported around the world.

Soybeans originated in China and Manchuria and were a major part of those nation’s diets probably for centuries. Tofu is one food product made from soybeans and is a major source of protein in oriental diets. The oil from soybeans was also a source of dietary fats and a source of oil for light. In the late 1800s, Manchuria exported large quantities of soybeans around the orient. In 1908, the first shipment of soybeans arrived in England bound for oil mills there. The venture was a success and trade expanded.

A few American farmers had been aware of the plant since the 1880s, but it was regarded as a curiosity from the orient. By the turn of the century, a few scientists in the USDA had decided soybeans had several advantages:

  • First, 36 percent of every bean is pure protein.
  • Soybeans are a legume, meaning that they fix nitrogen in their root systems and so could be a valuable part of a crop rotation plan.
  • The beans grow on acid soils and – more importantly to plains farmers – they do well with limited rainfall.

With publicity from the USDA, soybeans had become a familiar crop on many farms by the 1930s. The severe drought during the decade helped increase its popularity. In addition, the USDA introduced nearly 3,000 new, high-yielding varieties imported from Asia and from its research fields. The combine was adapted to harvest the beans. A tariff was imposed on imported beans. And a host of new uses for the soy protein and oil were introduced. For instance, researchers began producing a waterproof soybean glue that was widely adopted by the plywood industry.

Yet, most soybeans grown during the 30s were eaten by cattle and other livestock, often right in the fields. Other farmers would cut the beans – leaves, stalks and all – and use the crop as hay or silage to feed as winter rations to livestock or poultry. Others would plow the nitrogen rich plants under as “green manure” to provide nutrients to the next year’s crop of corn or wheat. Few farmers harvested the beans.

All of that changed in the 1940s. Just before the war, Manchuria was still exporting significant quantities of soybeans to Europe, shipping them south around China, around India, through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean to European ports. It became a “hot” route in more ways than one. Temperatures in the ships’ holds could damage part of the commodity, and as the war heated up those shipping lanes were cut. Then the Japanese invaded Manchuria.

The U.S. turned out to be a better trading partner on both fronts. When the war started, the USDA exhorted farmers to produce much more of “the miracle bean,” as they started calling it. The USSR and the Britain requested a billion pounds of dietary fats for margarines and other uses for the year 1942. U.S. farmers responded and increased their production of soybeans from an already high level of 106 million bushels in 1941 to 188 million bushels in 1942. That’s a single year jump of 77 percent.

crops_0302Some of that production went into the domestic market, as well, because all foreign sources of soy protein and oil had been cut off here.

To help meet the demand, the USDA worked on new hybrid varieties of beans that would yield better and resist diseases. The first hybrid, named the “Lincoln” soybean, was released in 1943. Many other strains followed.

After the war, the U.S. position in the export market continued. Manchuria was still embroiled in political turmoil as it was annexed by Communist China.

In addition, new markets developed. Researchers found new uses for soy oil in plastics and for the soy meal in livestock feeds. American dietary habits changed after the war and beef was much more popular. As the beef industry grew and as feedlots became possible, soy protein became a major part of the diet of cattle on feed. And soybeans became a small, but growing part of human diets in the form of margarines and vegetable oils and even soy burgers. Today the bean is a major crop and major export for U.S. farmers.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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