By Candace Krebs
In any given year, at least 10 million acres — roughly a quarter of the area of Illinois — are planted to soybeans. Production hit a record 700 million bushels in 2018. And while once again reigning as the largest soybean producing state in the country, Illinois also outranks nearly every country in the world, except Brazil and Argentina, in production.
So how can Illinois soybean producers capitalize on this profound influence into the future? As societal changes occur, so must the industry to maintain its positive stature. That starts with keeping the informed, informed.
Luke Worrell runs Worrell Land Services, a second-generation farm management and real estate company founded by his dad, Allan, based in Jacksonville, Illinois. He’s also the current president of the Illinois chapter of the Realtors’ Land Institute.
But even as a relative Illinois agricultural industry insider, he was surprised to hear the Illinois soybean industry’s impressive statistics while serving on a program last fall with Mike Levin, ISA director of public policy and regulatory affairs.
“It was really interesting to hear someone share those statistics, basically the sheer number of soybeans we produce,” he says. “It was pretty astounding.”
Ag businesses like Worrell’s closely follow every new wrinkle that affects soybeans and soybean markets, because, “as the commodity goes, so goes our business,” he says.
Worrell has been following how low commodity prices correlate to softening land values. After peaking in 2013-2014, soybean prices have fallen about 40 percent.
“Illinois farmland peaked in value in 2013, and ever since we’ve seen gradual declines in the land market,” he adds. “We haven’t fallen off a cliff or anything like that, but I’d expect to see another decline of two to five percent this year in west central Illinois.”
The dip in land values has actually helped to reveal just how much Illinois corn and soybean acreage is coveted around the world, he asserts. “In the last year there’s been more chatter from investors outside the United States,” he says. “Food security is a huge issue for a lot of countries even though it’s something we take for granted here.”
While Chinese demand for the crop looms large — at one point it was estimated that two of every four rows of beans would be sent there — Worrell says other foreign interest in farmland is a worldwide phenomenon.
“I was on the phone with someone from Denmark last year. That’s never happened before,” he says. “Interest is coming from all over the globe, not just from China.”
Influence Beyond Agriculture
Illinois soybean producers need to keep waving the flag to the general public as well, even if soybeans are highly regarded, says Jason Bond, plant pathologist and director of the Illinois Soybean Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. SIUC is not an “ag school” in the traditional sense. It was founded in 1869 as a teacher’s college and now ranks among the highest in the nation in numbers of international students and degree of ethnic diversity, with emphasis on social inclusivity, sustainability and the arts.
“I believe soybeans and soybean meal have high favorability among the most discerning of activists, even among those who tend to have the loudest voices about what’s safe in our food,” Bond says. “I think the plant itself and the meal we get from it, has a favorable, even outstanding, perception among the general public.
“You’ll notice, for example, that we don’t get the same complaints about biodiesel as the ethanol industry does. You just don’t see a lot of protests around that,” he explains.
As one of the nation’s largest biodiesel-producing states, Illinois has won over the American Lung Association with its clean air benefits and nearly two-dozen municipal fleets with its engine extending efficiencies, a story that advocates are now taking beyond Illinois to other states and even worldwide (see Tale of Two Cities).
Meanwhile, soy food products, like milk, edamame and tofu, are getting easier to find in grocery stores, although there’s still room for more education among consumers. Brooke Bisping, a dietitian for a Hy-Vee store near Peoria, Illinois, where she conducts cooking demos, consultations and store tours to promote healthy eating, says most of her customers don’t realize that Illinois is a world leader in soybean production.
“When I do store tours, I take consumers to the freezer section and show them frozen edamame. They typically aren’t aware edamame are soybeans. So, I do think there is a disconnect when it comes to consumer knowledge about them,” she says. “Dietitians promote soy foods as a great source of fiber and protein that helps keep you fuller longer and an awesome alternative for people who choose not to eat meat or dairy.”
For the minority of customers who associate soybeans with being heavily processed or hormonally disruptive, Bisping says she debunks that notion and emphasizes their contribution to heart health and lower cholesterol. Shoppers also are generally unaware that the main use of soybeans is as feed for livestock.
Beth Peralta, registered dietitian and communications specialist for nutrition education programs at the University of Illinois Extension, says consumers are clamoring for recipe cards, fact sheets and reasonable advice that cuts through the informational clutter – another great opportunity for Illinois soybean producers to exert their influence.
“I’ve been in the field for more than 12 years, and I know that soy protein is getting brought up more frequently now,” she says. “There’s a big focus on eating more plant-based meals, and soybeans fit well with that trend.”
Back at SIUC, Bond points out soybeans also address public concern with environmental sustainability. “I think you’d have to put them at the top of the list of crops that make you a good steward just by growing them,” he says, citing adaptability to no-till, plant vigor, nitrogen fixation activity and ability to shade out weeds.
SIUC’s soybean center is one of several in the Midwest. With help from the soybean industry, the centers have started working together in a more coordinated way to share ideas and resources. SIUC is also undertaking a strategic planning process to determine how the center can be most effective and better measure outcomes.
A key goal for Bond is expanding undergraduate training and research. SIUC currently hires around 40 students a year to fill research support positions.
“Three to five will go to the annual Crop Science Society of America meeting and actively compete,” he says. “To get them skilled in research methods and high-quality data and have them present at a national scientific forum is a big deal.”
While Bond wants to be sure students are aware of the opportunities available in soybean and crop-related research — he hopes to encourage many of them to go on to get jobs that will ultimately help soybean farmers — his intentions go beyond that. Often these students aren’t from the agronomy department, or even the college of agriculture, making them well positioned to interact with and influence nonfarm audiences.
“Have we measured the impact we’ve made on the views and attitudes of these students? That hasn’t been done, but that’s something we’d like to look at going forward,” he says. “And then how do we take that to the next level? That’s an area we need to explore.”