The Rise in Soybeans in North Carolina
No matter which of the 100 North Carolina counties one may visit, soybeans can be found. Over the years, the rows of soybeans have increased in farmers' fields, giving rise to what is now dubbed "the perfect crop."
Originally from China, soybeans took a while to become popular in America. It would take the actions of several researchers, world events, and exciting innovations to push soybeans to stardom. It was not until the 1870's that soybeans began to take off in the country and became popular as a livestock feed. By the turn of the century, research was being conducted on the crop by the likes of George Washington Carver who not only discovered that soybeans were excellent for protecting soil quality but were also valuable for their protein and oil. During the World Wars, soybeans became indispensable as sources of lubricants, plastics, animal feed, and oil. With the wars, soybeans took their place as one of the most popular crops in America and North Carolina.
Indeed, the first state to process soybeans was North Carolina, in 1950. As a state, we took great pride in our soybean production, and for the longest time, thought that we were the first to grow the crop in the nation. Historians later realized that we were preceded with soybean production in Georgia by almost 100 years, according to authors William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. It wouldn't be until 1980 that soybeans really gained popularity in North Carolina.
"They had not been as popular prior to that and the demand for soybeans finally got great enough that it was driving the price up, and they became popular," explained Dr. Jim Dunphy, NCSU Soybean Specialist and Crop Science Professor.
Despite the early history and popularity of soybeans in North Carolina, we are not amongst the top producing soybean states. However, soybeans are the leading crop in the state. According to the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, 1.6 million acres of soybeans are planted on average every year in North Carolina, which is worth as much as $800 million dollars. Clearly, soybeans play an important role in the North Carolina farming scene, but why such popularity for some beans?
Soybeans fit well in the North Carolina farm scene because of their tolerance to heat and their hardiness.
"They've been through the coldest, the wettest, the driest, the hottest, the everything else-est in 5,000 years and survived. They have to fit pretty well to survive all of that," Dr. Dunphy said.
In its most basic level, soybeans provide farmers with feed for livestock and a way to preserve their land. North Carolina ranks second in both hog and turkey production. That is a lot of mouths to feed, and soybeans provide an economical protein choice for those animals. Farmers also use soybeans to preserve the quality of their land. The crop helps prevent erosion and can also increase soil quality for future crops.
On a more sophisticated level, soybeans are used in items like cooking oil, biodiesel fuels, crayons, candles, lubricants, and carpet, just to name a few. Soybeans have been showing up in unexpected places since Henry Ford days when he encouraged his researchers to develop a use for soybeans in car production (they developed a plastic that was seen in many cars in the 1930's).
Soybeans were not always used for these purposes. In the 1930's, a research facility was started in the Midwest to determine purposes of soybeans. It was here that soybeans as a protein livestock feed was discovered.
"What few soybeans were being grown, were used for forage as a hay or as a silage. Up until the middle 20's, North Carolina had more soybeans than anybody else, but we weren't processing them; we were feeding them as a forage," Dr. Dunphy explained.
With its versatility, many uses, and acclimation to the climate, it is no wonder that soybeans have garnered the title of "the perfect crop" for North Carolinians and risen to the top of crops in the state. The soybean crop is an integral part of farmers' lives. Oftentimes, it makes a daily appearance whether or not the farmer has a field full of beans because they can be found in the farmer's feed for livestock, his truck seat, his child's crayon box, and on his dinner table. Soybeans have not only impacted North Carolina farmers in a positive way but have benefited the local community and the entire state through by-products, economics, and environmental preservation. When a near perfect thing is found that has so many outstanding uses, fame and popularity is not far behind, and so we have --the rise in soybeans.