This story was inspired by a question submitted at a Listening Post the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting held in August. Stuart Levy in Urbana, Illinois, asked us what would be needed for row crop farmers to switch from corn and soybeans to “something more sustainable.” We dug into that question, which starts with the unlikely circumstances that turned the soybean into a multi-billion dollar industry, and what this history might reveal about the future of U.S. agriculture. 

Chris Murray is a fifth-generation farmer in Champaign County, Illinois.  Like most farmers in the heartland, he grows both corn and soybeans, but says it was a particularly good year for the bean.

“We’re still probably going to be in one of our top five best soybean years we’ve ever had,” Murray said.

Farmers in the U.S. grew more soybeans in 2017 than ever before, according to USDA data. Nearly 89.5 million acres were planted this year, an increase of more than 25 million acres over the last decade.  The plant, native to Asia, has become ubiquitous across the American Corn Belt, but the crop was virtually unknown to the region until the middle of the 20th century. And the soybean’s rise can be traced back to one enterprising Illinois industrialist, A.E. Staley.

Staley was the first to process the soybean bean into oil and meal at his plant in Decatur, Illinois, in 1922, two years before the USDA even began tracking the crop.

“Staley said if you plant them, I will buy them. Then when he bought those beans, in order to make that a sustainable process for farmers and for himself, he needed to create a market for them,” said Laura Jahr, the director of the Staley Museum inside the soybean pioneer’s former mansion in Decatur.

A.E. Staley’s family home in Decatur, Ill. Staley purchased the house in 1912, ten years before he transformed the town into the “soybean capital of the world.” (Photo courtesy of the Staley Museum)
A.E. Staley’s family home in Decatur, Ill. Staley purchased the house in 1912, ten years before he transformed the town into the “soybean capital of the world.” (Photo courtesy of the Staley Museum)

By the late 1920s, Staley partnered with the University of Illinois and the Illinois Central Railroad to create a train known as the “Soil and Soybean Special” that made stops across the Midwest. The train had exhibits and presentations for farmers about the benefits of including soybeans in their crop rotations, and served as an attraction to entice farmers with an offer: If they grew soybeans, Staley would process them at his plant, where it would ultimately be used for protein in animal feed.

A.E. Staley was the first to commercially process the soybean. (Photo courtesy of Decatur Herald & Review)

“That is what we can thank A.E. Staley for,” Jahr said. “Having that vision, and courage, to step into something new, and create something new.”

Now, soybeans are a $41 billion industry, and farmers across the country are even switching to growing them from other less profitable crops, such as wheat.

Gary Schnitkey, a professor in the school of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, says that it was primarily the use of corn and soybeans for protein in animal feed that generated the demand in the Midwest, and now other areas of the U.S.

“Soybeans, you know, it’s the protein,” Schnitkey said. “And until you find another protein source to compete with soybeans, those two crops are going to be the dominant two.”

But there are potential downsides to this lack of diversity in agriculture, Schnitkey says.

“There’s an argument for diversity in crops. So, if you have one crop that would have a blight, or a disease that came to largely impact that crop, you have the other crops to fall back on,” Schnitkey said.

And there are other environmental concerns with the two-crop rotation of corn and soybeans that have implications beyond the Midwest. When fields sit empty after harvest, around this time of year, it makes it easier for soil erosion and fertilizer runoff to occur. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the “dead zone,” an area of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico that can no longer support marine life, is in large part a result of U.S. agriculture.

That’s something Steve John with the Agricultural Watershed Institute, a nonprofit in Decatur, is working to address.

“We’re interested in thinking about crops and cropping practices that improve water quality and soil health, reduce erosion, provide wildlife habitat, reduce greenhouse gases and all those other benefits that can come from agricultural lands if we manage them well,” John said.

John says his mission is not to get farmers to switch from corn and soybeans all together, but to plant cover crops in areas of their land, like slopped regions, that might not be easy to farm in the first place.

John’s vision is to turn 10 to 15 percent of Illinois farmland into to perennial grasses that can be used as food and bedding for farm animals, or be used to create what is known as biomass energy for heat. But that technology is still a long way off, and for farmers to diversify, there must be a market.

“We like to hold up some of the early soybean pioneers, both farmers like Charlie MeHarry and industrialists like A.E. Staley, as models for today and encourage the pioneers who are interested today in growing perennial crops,” John said.

Back on Chris Murray’s farm, he says there are other incentives to diversify, like cost and falling commodity crop prices.

“The margins are tight enough right now that even some of the multiple-generation farms are looking for different things they can be doing off the farm to subsidize some of their farming,” Murray said.

But for Murray, and many other farmers in the heartland, soybeans and corn are still where the demand is, partly because of the market that A.E. Staley helped create nearly a century ago.

“There’s been ups and downs, but overall it’s been really good business for us over the years,” Murray said.

Until the next Staley comes along, or expenses guide the next generation of farmers away from corn and soybeans, the two crops will likely remain king here in the Midwest.

Anna Casey is the Audience Engagement Fellow at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The fellowship is sponsored by Illinois Humanities, a private 501(c)(3) state-level affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, with support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. 

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