The plain-Jane No. 2 yellow soybean has been a workhorse for U.S. farmers. But there are other kinds of soybeans, and more farmers are finding it profitable to grow them.
It's relatively easy to find buyers or brokers looking for specialty soybeans, usually for food use and for export, mostly to Japan. The U.S. now ships about 120,000 tons of specialty soybeans to Japan annually, about one-tenth of the food-grade soybeans the Japanese buy.
For growers, it's an economic decision. They get more dollars per bushel, but sometimes get fewer bushels per acre. For the premium, growers meet quality standards and keep the beans separate - "identity preserved."
If you grow black or clear-hilum soybeans, there's no tolerance for soybeans of other shades; foreign matter, cracked coats, splits, weed seeds or nightshade stains won't cut it, either.
Dave Bliss of Maquon, IL, has been getting more and more into specialty soybeans. They accounted for 60% of his 850 acres last year.
"I got started with food-grade corn about 10 years ago," Bliss reports. "When I got the opportunity to grow specialty soybeans, I took it. It hasn't made me rich, but this thing is really growing, and I want to be part of the opportunities ahead."
He started growing clear-hilum soybeans for Lewis Osterburg and Associates in Quincy, IL. He then added black soybeans to the roster, growing them for GrowMark. Last year he grew for Clarkson Grain Co., Cerro Gordo, IL, as well.
Bliss says contracts vary by buyer, but each is specific on quality parameters. He grows varieties the buyers specify. Some he can deliver direct from his fields at harvest; others he has to store and deliver at the buyer's call. Pricing may be based on a certain dollar amount over the delivery price at the Illinois River, or on Chicago Board of Trade soybean futures for a specific month. About $1.50/bu is a typical premium.
The big premium now is being paid for soybeans grown organically - on fields certified three years free of any man-made fertilizers or pesticides.
"I drill my beans and it's hard to do that without herbicides," Bliss says
"I considered doing it on some land coming out of CRP, but when I realized what I'd go through to control the weeds, I decided against it. But the last three years, there's been a big, big premium for organic soybeans."
Lynn Clarkson at Clarkson Grain confirms that organic soybeans have been bringing from $14 to $25 a bushel. Some years, there's also a premium for soybeans grown chemical-free for just one growing season.
For most specialty varieties grown conventionally, contracts are set up to give the grower an incentive of perhaps $50 extra per acre, Clarkson says.
"We find the buyers and work from there," he says.
Growers are not easy to find.
"We really want these soybeans," says Jim Traub, who works with Clarkson growers. "We have contracts to fill. We want to help farmers grow them profitably. And, in the long run, they'll be better off serving a human food market than a feed market."
In Newton, GA, Jimmy Clements at Plantation Seed Conditioners contracts with Georgia farmers to grow about 10,000 acres of beans that will be turned into tempeh, natto, tofu, meso and other oriental foods. Depending on the buyer, the desired soybean might be large or small, black, gray or yellow.
Clements is an agent for Hartz Foods, wholly owned by Monsanto. Growers get more than $1 over the futures price, plus they gain about 35 cents from the basis.
"Yields are typically 8-10% less than the best varieties," says Clements.
He finds that farmers experienced in growing food crops are interested in food-grade beans.
"In our area, several growers plant Hartz beans as a doublecrop after Vidalia onions, sweet corn or green beans."
The specialty beans follow a heavily fertilized crop on irrigated ground. If planted by July 15, the soybeans yield from 28 to 35 bu/acre.
Ron Haaland of Auburn, AL, was a plant breeder at Auburn University before he and partner Max Crouse of Greenfield, TN, formed Specialty Export Productions 10 years ago.
"We contract specialty soybeans in several states for shipment to buyers in Japan, Korea and Europe," he reports. "We've developed our own varieties that produce high-quality products - natto, tofu, meso, bean sprouts and others."
Quality is the key. The Japanese are cautious.
"They also want a reliable supply. Markets once served by China are now being won by Americans," says Haaland.
At the American Soybean Association, Kim Nill, deputy director for international marketing, keeps tabs on the growing opportunities for specialty soybeans. He says seed companies are finding markets for niche beans. Often, only a few thousand acres are needed.
DuPont introduced a variety last year that produces oil high in oleic acid - naturally lower in saturated fats and more heat stable without hydrogenation. Asgrow Seed Co. will handle seed production for DuPont Quality Grains in Des Moines, IA. About 10,000 acres were grown in Iowa in 1997.
DuPont is also working on a low stachyose bean. Stachyose is a sugar poorly digested by single-stomached animals, including humans, causing gas. This bean is also lower in a phosphorus-containing compound called phytic acid which, when fed to hogs, creates lower-phosphorus-content manure.
Pioneer Hi-Bred International had 7,000 acres of low-linolenic oil beans grown last year for a market similar to that of high- oleic acid beans.
Nill's assessment: More specialty soybeans are coming.
Soybean specialists suggest that growers be cautious and not jump too far too fast.
John Woodruff at the University of Georgia points out that specialty varieties usually yield less and may have idiosyncrasies - susceptibility to metribuzin herbicide and root knot nematodes, to use one variety as an example.
Jim Dunphy at North Carolina State University gives this checklist for growers: 1) Start by growing just a few acres. 2) Look at gross income - yield times price. 3) Figure what premium you need to justify a lower yield. 4) Be sure the buyer is trustworthy. If you grow black soybeans, there's no other place to sell them if the contractor won't take them.