Like most farmers, Jennie Schmidt enjoys gazing over her fields, knowing the crops grown on her farm will contribute to America’s safe and abundant food supply. Unlike many farmers, however, the bulk of the soybeans harvested in from Schmidt’s fields are not bound for livestock feed. Many of her soybeans will be planted to farmers’ fields next season or will grace our dinner plates as Asian fare.
“The differences in growing soybeans for feed, seed or food are not significant while they’re growing,” Schmidt says. “The difference is more in the management practices and the details and tracking at harvest.”
She says growing soy for niche markets is rewarding, but not for everyone. “Growing identity-preserved soybeans does require patience, repeated equipment cleaning, segregated varieties and meticulous record-keeping,” she says. “But farmers are rewarded for these seed- and food-grade beans and the extra work they entail. They provide another market to meet local demand and add value for the farmer.”
Jennie and her husband, Hans, own and operate Schmidt Farms in Sudlersville, Md., a former farrow-to-finish hog operation that traditionally grew feed-grade soybeans for hog rations. While soybean oil is processed for numerous food applications, livestock feed is the ultimate destination of most soybean meal harvested from U.S. soybeans.
“The chickens and hogs aren’t picky about their soybean meal,” Jennie jokes. “However, typical feed formulators seek soybeans with at least 36 percent protein.”
Animal agriculture is not the only market for U.S. soybeans; growing, niche markets also exist for seed-grade soybeans and food-grade soybeans, destined for human consumption.
The Best of the Best
Seed-grade soybeans require optimal fields. Weedy fields can introduce pests or disease into a crop, so farmers grow seed-grade soybeans on their best fields, where they’ll thrive. After harvest, these seeds undergo a thorough inspection – those that don’t pass are downgraded to feed, and the farmers don’t collect premiums.
“Seed-grade soybeans exemplify the best of their variety,” Schmidt says. “They must be true to the genetics associated with that specific plant in terms of disease resistance or other traits.”
Destined for Tofu
Food-grade soybeans are higher in protein and require an even higher level of management to wind up as the tofu, soy milk or sprouts popular in our diets. A pristine field is of the utmost importance. “If pokeberry goes through the combine, it will stain the soybeans,” Schmidt says. “No one wants to eat purple tofu.”
During their annual planning process, Schmidt carefully gauges the quality of her fields, designating those that are the best drained and highest quality for food-grade beans.
To learn more about growing premium soybeans, talk to your seed dealer or county extension agent.
Follow Schmidt’s blog, The Foodie Farmer, to hear more from her on the path food takes from field to fork.