Soybeans have never been considered the rock star of crops, but the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association is working hard to change that and make sure the legume receives the respect it is due.
Soybeans have long been North Carolina’s top crop in terms of acreage. The state’s poultry and hog sector remains the leading market for North Carolina soybeans, but NCPSA is working to expand the export market and find new buyers.
Owen Wagner, NCSPA CEO, says North Carolina is well suited to export more of its beans as a coastal state and the Ports of Wilmington and Norfolk are located not far from the major soybean producing region of eastern North Carolina.
Wagner says the state’s industry has a good story to tell because it is known for producing high quality soybeans with high protein content that the hog and livestock industies value. Still, consolidation in the North Carolina livestock industry concerns the association and efforts are underway to expand markets beyond the traditional hog and poultry sectors.
“We want all these folks in the value chain, but in the ideal world you’d have more players. We need to cultivate a more vibrant marketplace. We need more folks competing for those soybeans rather than just one entity,” Wagner says.
“Quality characteristics are a way North Carolina can really distinguish itself. In the Southeast, we have a higher protein content and a shorter supply chain to the export market than the Midwest, which limits foreign material and breakage. We can load a container on the farm in many cases, and truck it directly to the port, as opposed to passing through a series of elevators and multiple modes of transportation the way they do in the Midwest” Wagner said.
High-protein content is especially valued in aquaculture rations. The association is working to expand that market as well.
In addition to working toward building markets for North Carolina soybeans, NCPSA is committed to research and education. More than half of the association’s programmatic spending goes to research with 20% going to grower and consumer education. The majority of the research dollars — 80% — is targeted to North Carolina State University.
The North Carolina Soybean Producers Association is the official checkoff organization for North Carolina soybeans. Every North Carolina soybean famer pays a checkoff of one half of one percent of the price of a bushel of soybeans. Half the checkoff funds go to the United Soybean Board and half goes to NCSPA.
NCPSA is unique in that it has a full time research director, Katherine Drake Stowe, who works with North Carolina State and other groups on research projects designed to increase the state’s soybean yields and improve the efficiency of local soybean farmers.
“Katherine does a great job to make sure research doesn’t’ get too blue sky or academic. She makes sure the research is directly applicable to North Carolina soybean farmers,” Wagner says.
Moreover, as the North Carolina population continues to grow rapidly and is becoming even more urbanized, NCPSA is working to expand its educational outreach, targeting schools. In the past, the association devoted a lot of time and resources trying to reach children school-by-school, but is now transitioning to digital platforms to be able to reach more students and educators.
“With a staff of four and one intern, we can only reach so many children going from school to school. We’ve developed teacher module training that is a better way to educate young people about North Carolina soybeans. It’s a force multiplier in that we can leverage the training of this state’s amazing educators. To start, we are targeting ninth grade environmental science teachers,” Wagner says.
“We know teachers are hungry for digital content and we’re hoping this will make their job easier and to transition the conversation from “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mechanics) to “STEAM “(Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture, and Mechanics).
In the meantime, NCPSA President Jeff Tyson, a soybean farmer from Nashville, N.C., is wrapping up his term with a new president taking over in January. He notes that NCPSA has made great strides in promoting North Carolina soybeans, and he amplifies Wagner’s comments that efforts must continue to expand exports and build other markets.
“Soybeans are a strong crop for North Carolina. As long as we hold onto the animal ag industry in the state, we will be okay. The largest portion of our crop is still used for the swine ration, but we need other markets as well. The association is working hard on that,” Tyson says
“In the last eight to 10 years, we’ve really made advances we haven’t seen before. When I came back to the farm in the early 1990s, our soybean yields were in the low teens simply because the soybean crop didn’t get the attention it deserved. Now the average yield is somewhat north of 40 bushels per acre,” Tyson says.
Tyson believes yields of 100 bushels per acre are within reach on certain soils and in certain pockets of the state. He notes that yield monitors are showing many spots in a field are already producing 80 bushels per acre or more.
“Farmers in the Midwest are already doing a good job of producing 100-bushel beans. I think 100 bushels per acre is a legitimate goal for some parts of North Carolina,” he says.
Tyson stresses research will help North Carolina farmers get there. “We have made great strides. Global imaging, drones, site specific applications and the targeting of weeds. In the next five years, we should see more advance that we have seen in the past 10 years.”
While research is critical, Tyson believes programs to reach the schools is all the more important to reach a public that is farther and farther removed from agriculture.
“Reaching out to teachers is a good way for us to tell our story. The North Carolina population doesn’t know much about farming. Educating those off the farm is something I see as important moving forward for the association. When the farming population was 2.5 percent of the population and their granddaddy farmed, they knew something about it. But now most are four or five generations removed from the farm. People don’t know what’s going on out here. They don’t know what it takes to raise a crop to keep them fed,” he says.