Nothing against the egg, but consider the edible and perhaps more incredible soybean.
Its protein feeds animals and humans, in liquid form it saturates breakfast cereal and fried rice, and it is an ingredient in literally a thousand commercial and consumer products.
Just ask a man who has spent a lifetime growing them, fourth-generation farmer Jim Carroll of Brinkley. Carroll took time over the holidays to discuss the bean’s future as he ended his year as chairman of the United Soybean Board.
2020 was a miserable year in many ways, from the COVID-19 pandemic to abysmally wet fall weather that hurt farmers’ yields, but Carroll spoke with pride of the soybean board’s work, a mission he’s been pursuing for a decade as a member of the national board.
The USB’s unaltered goal, kept top of mind even in the year of coronavirus, is to get the biggest bang for farmers’ checkoff bucks in the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that invests farmers’ money in expanding the global soybean market.
“The year was trying for all farmers, not just soybean farmers,” Carroll told Arkansas Business in a telephone interview. “We’re used to things happening on a daily basis with weather, insects or equipment, and it doesn’t generally slow us down. But I have to admit that this pandemic is bigger than most of us ever thought of it being worldwide.”
Nevertheless, the 78-member board’s work continued “day by day and week by week” — much of it over Zoom, Carroll said — with a particular emphasis on expanding markets through research and development. Carroll said researchers are optimizing soy products as feed for swine, beef, poultry and aquaculture, and finding success with new ingredients in asphalt and concrete road-building.
“Our 78 board members represent the other 500,000 soybean farmers in the U.S., and our objective is to take our checkoff money and our tax money and use it for research and development,” Carroll said, noting that the board continued making decisions daily and weekly even through pandemic restrictions.
“This board, I’m so proud of them for keeping on track with the road map we set for this year, without much change except for all the Zooming and phone calls.”
Farmers have always been resilient, Carroll said. “They have never stopped thinking about producing food and fiber and fuel for this country and even overseas. And here in Arkansas, we kept doing that while putting up with a season of probably the worst conditions I’d ever dealt with. This was one of those falls that started wet and ended wet, and I’m ready to see some falls that are more normal.”
Expanding Soy’s Uses
The soy checkoff investment has multiplied soy’s industrial uses, spurring development of soy-based asphalt, tires and shoes, a product to make concrete more durable, and even soy motor oil.
“Some of the things we’ve done in the oil area just tickle me to death,” Carroll said, stressing R&D. “Protein has always been the driver behind soybeans for animal use. And we have done research with biodiesel starting about 15 years ago. And the reason I tell this to people is because the things we’re trying to do are sustainable, renewable. It’s not something you have to dig out of the dirt. It’s something that we can raise every year and keep going.”
Developments in asphalt allow makers to “take out the petroleum oils and put in soybean oil,” Carroll said, adding that preliminary indications suggest the new asphalts will last longer.
The USB released a video last year of a paving demonstration by the board, the Iowa Soybean Association, the Asphalt Paving Association of Iowa and Iowa State University. The video featured the use of soybean oil in asphalt used for a new parking lot at the university.
The asphalt’s polymer comes from high oleic soybean oil that “offers a lower-cost and cleaner alternative to asphalt’s traditional binding agents.
“I want the general public to see we’re not just farming for ourselves; we’re farming for other things out here, other industries,” Carroll said. “And soybeans have been a leader in that, and I think our checkoff is one that people can look up to and say those guys, year in and year out, stay on track.”
Carroll batted away questions about public policy and politics, including what prospects farmers might face under the new Biden administration. Soy checkoff farmer-leaders are not allowed to comment on politics, policy and legislation, per guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service. He referred those answers to a partner organization, the American Soybean Association.
Heading into the new year, the Soybean Association listed its top policy priorities as COVID response and an infrastructure package, as well as a focus on trade.
Association CEO Steve Censky said infrastructure “is going to be high on the list for the incoming administration, and I think there’s support in Congress.” Rural broadband expansion will be at the top of the association’s infrastructure list, and “obviously a carve-out for rural America makes sense,” Censky said. In trade, he hopes to perpetuate current deals like the U.S.-China phase one and the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
“Eventually, let’s look at expanding new free trade agreements,” Censky said. “Another big focus of the administration will be climate change. We want to be part of that conversation, but we need to make sure the solutions proposed actually work for farmers.”
Caroll said he’s proud of his tenure as chairman of the United Soybean Board; as past chair he will remain on the USB Executive Committee.
Last month, the board elected Illinois farmer Dan Farney as chair. USB leaders, under the oversight of the USDA, steward the checkoff fund. The board, which will have Ralph Lott II of New York as vice chair, is focused on three investment priorities, “meal, oil and sustainability,” according to a USB news release.
It noted key successes in 2020, including decisions by companies like Skechers and Goodyear to use more U.S. soybean oil than ever in their products. And companies creating new products in infrastructure, including soy-based asphalt and a soy oil-based concrete enhancer, took key steps forward to reach widespread adoption and use on roadways and bridges.
“It’s been a difficult year in many ways, but soybean farmers have never strayed from their goal of providing a high-quality product to customers,” Carroll said.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the work of our checkoff this past year in adapting during the pandemic to reach end users and maximize profit opportunities in new and innovative ways.”