The Van Trump Report

How Soybeans Finally Became a Major Crop in America

U.S. farmers are expected to produce over 4 billion bushels of soybeans this season and next, putting it second after only corn among the country’s biggest row crops. The “miracle crop,” as it is sometimes called because of its many dynamic uses, traces back to Asia where there is evidence of domestication as early as 7000 BC in China. It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the crop was first introduced in North America but it was the work of William Morse and Charles Piper at the turn of the 20th century that transformed it into a “golden bean” for U.S. agriculture. Since then, the dramatic and sustained exponential growth in world soybean production is unequaled by any other crop in the world.

The earliest known references to soybeans in the U.S. were by a man named Samuel Bowen who brought them to Georgia and first planted them around 1765.  According to Matthew D. Roth, author of the book “Magic Bean: The Rise of Soy in America,” Bowen used his beans to develop a soy sauce which he actually sent to King George III of England. Apparently, the King gave him a “present” of 200 guineas for his efforts and Bowen later acquired a patent for the sauce in England. During 1770-75, he exported over 1,000 quarts of soy sauce to England that he had made in Georgia.

Many of the historical mentions of soybeans as human food in the U.S. complain about how difficult they were to prepare or their lack of flavor. Some blame this for the lack of early interest from farmers that were slow to adopt the crop. It is George Washington Carver and his work at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, that is credited with promoting soybeans as a valuable source of both protein and oil. He also endorsed the idea that rotating crops with soybeans could improve soil quality.

Virginia was the earliest large producer and seems to have been the leader until about 1900, when North Carolina took over first place. In 1907 the soybean was still considered a minor crop, with less than 50,000 acres under cultivation. However, by 1929, U.S. soybean production reached about 9 million bushels. It was this year that the “father” of modern soybean agriculture William “Bill” Morse set out on a journey across Asia where he spent two years researching soybeans in China, Japan, and Korea.

Morse was inspired by his early mentor, Dr. Charles Vancouver Piper, whom he worked under at USDA in the Division of Forage Crops and Diseases. Often referred to by his colleagues as “The Prophet,” Piper was the first man to truly recognize the potential of the soybean in America. When Morse came to the USDA, Piper was looking for a way to attract attention to soybeans, which had lain dormant in America for over a century. Many of the important early articles on soybeans and soyfoods in America were written by Piper and Morse. In 1920, Morse helped to found the American Soybean Association (ASA), which thereafter helped to unify and direct an ongoing program of research and experimentation. He distributed seed from new introductions to anyone interested in soybeans, while also facing pretty steady ridicule when he promoted the idea of them ever becoming a major U.S. farm crop.

Morse said that his Asia expedition finally helped him fully grasp the great potential of the soybean, which he had only been able to glimpse through his years of reading and work in America. Morse and his colleagues also collected 4,578 distinct soybean seed samples, representing roughly 2,000 soybean varieties and types. Morse was a highly competent researcher and a prolific writer. Between 1910 and 1950 he wrote some 87 articles and bulletins on soybeans and soyfoods, including his book “The Soybean.” One measure of the success of his work is the amazing expansion of the crop. In 1907, when he started work, soybeans were such a small crop that no records of its production were kept. Between 1929 and 1939, soybean production increased by a remarkable +970%, and by 1949, national production reached over 200 million bushels.

During the early 1920s, there was also a sudden and dramatic shift among the leading soybean-producing states. In 1920, according to the Soy Info Center, the top five producers had been North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Missouri, and Kentucky – mostly southern states. During the 1930s, each of these states but Missouri plummeted in relative importance as soybean acreage and production expanded rapidly into the Corn Belt. In 1924, Illinois passed North Carolina to become the leading producer. This concentration in the Corn Belt was somewhat surprising as Morse and other researchers had believed soybeans were only suitable for the southern part of the Corn Belt.    

The 1930s saw a widespread growth of interest in using the soybean’s oil and protein to manufacture a remarkable array of industrial products ranging from paints and soaps to plastics and glues. In 1936 the United States Regional Soybean Industrial Products Laboratory was established at Urbana, Illinois, to do research and development on such products. These developments received widespread publicity and attracted attention from some big-name industrialists, one of them being Henry Ford. In fact, Ford was so enthralled with soybeans’ possibilities that he planted thousands of acres of the crop in the 1930s and 1940s. His soybean laboratory led to the use of some soy-based oils and plastics in Ford Motor Company vehicles, including soy-derived plastics.

The single most important factor in the early rise of the soybean in America was the shortage of domestic oils and fats created by World War II. The outbreak of war between Japan and the U.S. in December 1941 cut off virtually all US imports of East Asian oils, fats, and oilseeds (soy was but one of these), representing roughly 1,000 million pounds of oils and fats a year, or approximately two-thirds of the total annual prewar imports. Also during the war, the US became the chief foreign supplier of fats to the United Kingdom and the USSR. Moreover, the production of butter decreased during the war, and had to be partially replaced by soy and other vegetable oils.

To ensure that these great needs for additional oils and fats (as well as for food and feeds) were met, the USDA initiated programs to encourage production of oilseeds, especially soybeans. In early 1942 a USDA pamphlet was issued and widely circulated among farmers. Entitled “Soybean Oil and the War: Grow More Soybeans for Victory,” it urged farmers to immediately increase soybean acreage harvested for beans from the previous year’s 6 million acres up to 9 or 10 million. In 1941 the USDA had begun the first government soybean price support program to encourage farmers to do this (actually the market price rose higher than the support price) and even offered to help farmers harvest their crop by bringing in combines if there were not enough in the local area. The USDA also established programs to help soybean processors expand their factories at reduced risks.

The U.S. soybean crop more than doubled during the war, increasing +77% (from 106-188 million bushels) during the single year from 1941-1942, during which the U.S. passed both Manchuria and China to become the world’s leading soybean producing nation. It was in 1942 that the harvested acreage of soybeans exceeded that of another major American crop-sorghum. Soybeans then passed cotton in the mid-1950s, oats in the early 1960s, and wheat and hay in the mid-1970s. (Sources: History, Soy Info Center, U.S. Soy Education Center)

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