The United States is one of the world’s leading soybean producers. My husband, Mark, and I, we farm soybeans and corn along the Missouri River in northern Missouri.
Farms across the country produced about 4.3 billion bushels of soybeans in 2022, and the entire soybean sector contributed an average $124 billion to the US economy since 2019.
Soybean is being used as a food crop. It’s used as a fuel crop and it’s also used as a feed crop around the world.
Compared to every other crop that we grow in the United States, corn and soybeans are by far the biggest.
But soybeans haven’t always been a major US crop. I’m old enough to remember when soybeans were an alternative crop that a few people played with back in the 1960s.
Soybeans have become an important crop. Exports of Soybeans have exploded in the decades since.
Now, the US is the second leading exporter. Soybeans’ contribution to the US economy is only increasing day by day.
About half of the value of US-soybean-exports head to China. The 2018 trade dispute showcased how relying on a single market for its exports is a risk.
Farming is a high-risk business. We don’t want all of our beans in a basket with China. We need robust markets to be able to have a reliable demand that carries us through times that are completely out of our control.
Here’s how soybeans became such a valuable commodity from food production to the US economy and geopolitics.
Soybeans are primarily grown across the Midwest, with planting starting sometime between April and June and harvest beginning in late September.
My husband and I are the fifth generation to farm on our family land. Und, you know, we’re raising the sixth generation.
Meagan Kaiser and her family’s farm rotate their fields of corn and soybeans every year. You won’t find just a singular soybean farmer – most likely because they really do produce better in rotation with other crops.
Changing up where the crops are planted helps keep soils healthy and productive. For example, corn uses a lot of nutrients in the soil, but soybeans take nitrogen from the air and replenish the soil.
There’s a yield hit from planting corn on corn or soybeans. On soybeans, on soybeans. There’s a real benefit to rotation.
The average soybean production in our County 40 years ago in 1980 was 31 bushels. Today, that same acre produces 51 bushels on average.
Most of the time it’s much higher than that. US Soybean crop yields have gotten more productive over the past few decades.
The yields of soybeans have increased by two X within the US and the price has increased by four X.
For the first time since 1983, there were more acres planted with soybeans than with corn in 2018. Soybean makes two main products: meal and oil.
Tofu might be the first food product that comes to mind, but soy is often a less obvious ingredient, like in salad dressings, nutrition bars, baked goods or canned foods.
Und yet, these products aren’t the biggest demand factor. Its primary use is protein for livestock.
Our number one consumer is pork, poultry, aquaculture, the livestock industry, even dairy. 97 % of US Soybean meal is used for animal feed, for chickens, hogs, turkey cattle and even fish.
Global demand for animal protein is on the rise, supporting the market for soybean meal.
In the early 2000s, the US made about $9 billion from all oilseed crop exports, with soybeans just being a fraction of that. By 2021, the cash coming in from just soybean exports had skyrocketed to a whopping $26.
4 billion. Our soybeans are often loaded on rail and loaded on a barge and then down the Mississippi.
A lot of the northern plains will rail their beans out to the Pacific Northwest, which are then loaded on ocean vessels and head to Southeast Asia.
China is the largest importer of soybeans in the world, making up about 60 % of the global soybean trade.
Das goes back 25 years ago to 30 years ago, when they started moving their middle class to town out of the rural areas.
As they increase their incomes, people across China started buying more meat. But if you rewind to 2018, US soybean exports to China looked a lot different.
The stakes are high for American soybean farmers like him. China is the top importer of US soybeans, buying $14.
5 billion worth of the product, which makes up a staggering 61 % of all US soybean exports. The US-China relationship soured as the trade dispute escalated in 2018.
Both countries imposed tariffs on each other’s goods, and soybeans were at the center of the conflict.
We’ve helped rebuild China. Someday they’ll say thank you. The Tariffs made U.S. Soybeans much more expensive.
In turn, there was a sharp decline in exports to China that left us farmers with more supply than demand.
Prices fell, putting pressure on farms’ margins. Soybean farmers lost over $1 billion in value for the crop this morning alone, when soybeans dropped $0.40 per bushel.
The government stepped in with financial aid in addition to its subsidies to offset farmers’ losses.
But China still needed to import soybeans, primarily because it was rebuilding its hog population. The nation needed soybeans as animal feed to support the pork industry.
The world market has changed and China hasn’t bought any beans in the last month. China turned to South American imports, particularly Brazil.
It happened over 30 or 40 years that Brazil dramatically increased soybean acreage and production. Brazil is the world’s largest soybean producer and exporter.
I think that the Brazilians are doing all they can to take advantage of this situation: to expand their production in Brazil, expand their relationships in China.
Brazil is a relatively low-cost place to produce corn and soybeans, in spite of a number of disadvantages that they have.
So a lot of the land that they’ve brought into production is in the middle of the country, far from maritime transport and the ability to get those soybeans to export markets like China or Europe.
While the US and China reached a Phase-One-Trade-Deal in 2020, addressing some of the trade-issues, global agricultural trade patterns shifted.
In 2021, Brazil became the top soybean producer and Brazil’s production is still hitting records. 25 years ago, we had 75 % of the world’s export-market share for soybeans, roughly three-fourths of the market share.
Today, it’s between 25 and 30 % of the market share. Yet, the total 2022 US agricultural exports to China were worth $36.
4 billion, and nearly half of it was from soybeans, totaling $16.4 billion. That was a record. The export market is very competitive and we need to be cost-competitive with Brazil and Argentina if we want to capture market share.
The US is looking for other potential markets that could use its Soy-Product. We worked really hard to look at growing markets.
We know that India, for instance, has a growing population and also they’re eating more high-protein foods such as poultry. And you know what? Poultry eats a lot of soy.
So the United States is trying to be ahead of the curve and saying: „Okay, we’re going to be losing export business to China.“ So let’s develop domestic demand for our soybeans to offset that export business we’re going to be losing.
Jilted US farmers come to the table with a lot of baggage: More than a billion bushels of unsold soybeans, a record amount.
Many in the industry are researching and developing alternative uses for soy domestically.
Another area that we talk about a lot is bio-based products, and I’m holding a soy-straw right here. It took us five years, but we were able to develop a soy straw that is biodegradable after 90 days.
We’ve partnered with different companies, like Okabayashi, even Goodyear, to utilize soy as an ingredient in, you know, tires and tennis shoes.
Since Soybeans have two main components, meal and oil, there has been an increasing push for alternative uses for the oil-byproduct.
Soybean oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the US. Now this oil is used in the growing biofuel and renewable diesel sector.
The share of the oil value in a bushel of soybeans has kind of grown in the last couple of years, with this boom in renewable diesel production.
We had more supply of oil than we could utilize that way. Und so farmers got together and said: You know, I wonder, if we could use this as a renewable fuel.
That was the birth of biodiesel. We’ve learned that we can use that oil to produce fuel to reduce our dependency upon fossil fuels.
Renewable diesel is probably the biggest breakthrough in sustainable aviation fuel. Are we to the point of being able to profitably do that without government subsidies? No, we’re not.
Our crops suffered. Beans were even a little worse. Farmers are always optimistic: Next year is always better.
From geopolitics to adverse weather and supply chain distress, commodity markets are often volatile.
Weather risk is ever present in agriculture, and that’s the price that we pay for using the Sun and the Soil to grow our food.
Soybean farmers use tech like yield monitors and to help mitigate risks. We’re using data from our yieldmonitors, as it comes out, to overlay that with our soil conditions, with our in-season management, and to try to make better choices for next year
Managing expectations of weather events influences the market’s outlook. We had some major challenges with the lack of rainfall.
We did get some timely rains at the end of July And so we’ll once again be producing a reliable crop for the world market.
We’ve been through a few years, where we had weather-related production problems in key producing areas of the world, and we tightened up those supplies.
As climates shift and change, it may mean that different parts of the world could become better-growing regions for soybean crops
One big trend that we have seen since maybe the mid-1990s is that the US Soybean Area has moved northward.
One of the biggest by acreage soybean-growing areas in the United States is in North Dakota. It’s not a traditional soybean-growing-area, but now has become one because of technology.
As an example, in the South, it’s going to see drier and hotter summers in the next 10 to 20 years.
Take the Mississippi River as an example. How did this happen? An extremely hot summer. Lack of rain and even last year’s drought. Low water levels have made it difficult to transport commodities.
We don’t have anywhere to go with all the grain since it’s the middle of harvest. Levels are forcing them to cut down on the amount of product they can put in a b arge.
It increases our freight cost, slows us down a little bit during harvest. In the next ten years, we’re going to have a whole new generation of farmers and they’re going to look at problems that we have today on the farm like, “I wonder if we can solve that a more efficient way,” that I probably can’t even imagine.