The Ground Work series shares the perspectives of U.S. soybean farmers as they observe how the U.S. Soy industry lays the groundwork to grow innovative, reliable and sustainable solutions for people and communities around the world.  

The ideas pitched on reality television shows that feature entrepreneurs competing for investments aim to solve a wide range of challenges — some that viewers like me don’t know exist. But I can relate to the passion, drive and risk-taking of the entrepreneurs who share their products and ideas on those shows.

As a 10th-generation farmer, I live and breathe agriculture. My husband Benjamin and I raise soybeans, corn, wheat and beef cattle with our children near Champlain, Virginia, about 85 miles, or nearly 140 kilometers, south of Washington, D.C. We not only farm land that has been in the family since the 1600s, but we also work to solve problems that may not be obvious to consumers and customers.

I love adding my passion and drive to that long history in one of the most progressive industries there is — agriculture.

We are constantly looking for new technologies and practices for raising and marketing our products to improve quality, yield and sustainability. Because we farm in a sensitive area, the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we’re always thinking about our natural resources like soil and water, working to leave them to the 11th generation in better condition than when we took over.

My entrepreneurial spirit and focus on sustainability helped me to appreciate people using new technologies to solve similar sustainability challenges through the Soy Innovation Challenge. U.S. Soy and the United Soybean Board teamed up with The Yield Lab Institute and AWS Startups to create a platform that advances creative solutions using U.S. Soy to address real-world challenges.

Entrepreneurs from around the world apply to participate in networking and training and, ultimately, to win cash investments in their businesses offered by farmers like me through the soy checkoff. The 2023 Challenge received 69 applications. U.S. Soy, a product I grow every year on my farm, really can solve a wide variety of problems for consumers around the world. And most of them focused on sustainability, like we do.

As a United Soybean Board director, I was tapped to represent U.S. Soy farmers as a judge, representing our segment of investors.

I know soy has many uses. It can sustainably replace petroleum-based materials in many different things. When given a choice between something made with petroleum or soy, I would choose soy every time.

As a judge, I learned about many innovative concepts I hadn’t considered. I spent hours reviewing every application and googling as needed to understand the science behind the ideas. It was eye-opening to see what ideas and applications exist.

I am proud that I helped select the 2023 Soy Innovation Challenge finalists. They represent the many uses for soy well.

  • CellyFill cushion products from EDEN Concept Fill are a fully sustainable alternative to polyurethane foam. It can be made primarily from soy hulls.
  • Clean Label Solution developed an innovative process to use soy-based feed for dairy and beef cattle that simultaneously boosts milk and meat production while curbing methane emissions.
  • NeuEsse harnesses the healing power of soy by creating a human skin substitute made from soy protein. This medical solution helps cover and heal serious wounds and burns with minimal scarring.
  • Renewable Green Composites makes plastics from soybeans, bringing practical sustainability to the plastics industry.

Then, I met these finalists and talked with them one-on-one during an agriculture industry event. I learned about their drive and personal motivations to use U.S. Soy to solve problems and improve sustainability.

Virginia farmer Shannon Tignor Ellis discusses the 2023 Soy Innovation Challenge during the introduction of the four finalists.

I learned that, just like farmers, these entrepreneurs are personally invested in their life’s work.

I am involved in every aspect of raising soybeans, from selecting seed to protecting the crop from pests and from harvesting to delivering it to the supply chain. These entrepreneurs also understand and are personally involved in every step of their businesses. Like my family, they are investing their own money to produce a valuable product. They pour as much passion and energy into their businesses as we pour into our family farm business.

It’s a 24/7/365 commitment.

Regardless of how much of a U.S. Soy investment each finalists wins, I hope this process, the connections they make and the exposure they get provides motivation to keep all these companies moving forward.

When they win in the market, we all win.

Consumers will have more sustainable options for cushions and plastics. Dairy and beef eaters and farmers will benefit from more sustainable cattle feed. Doctors will have a natural, sustainable skin substitute for patients. Farmers will have new markets for our soybeans.

U.S. Soy provides real solutions for countless problems. The Soy Innovation Challenge gave me a deeper appreciation for the opportunities that exist — and for the effort it takes to bring those solutions to the people who need them.

And I want to invest in that.

Learn more about these soy-based innovations: https://ussoy.org/innovation/.