soybean drawing

Soybeans, sometimes called the “miracle crop” because of their versatility and health benefits, are a major crop for Minnesota. In 2011 farmers planted 7,100,000 acres of soybeans, valued at $11.50 a bushel.  The total crop that year brought $3,108,000 into the state.  Minnesota is the third largest soybean producing state in the U.S., and soybeans are the state’s number 1 agricultural export.

At first soybeans moved into the state slowly. They seem to have arrived as a crop about 1902. By 1920 farmers here had planted 322 acres of soybeans. The yield that year was nine bushels per acre. By 1929 U.S. production had grown to 9 million bushels. Through the 1930s, much of the crop was used for silage or as a “plow-down” crop to add nitrogen to the soil. By 1937 farmers in southern Minnesota began experimenting with soybeans as a new oil crop. As more and more uses were found for the bean, farmers planted greater acreage—planting 3.3 million acres in 1974. And as researchers developed better hybrids, yields increased. By 1959, Minnesota farmers were getting 19 bushels per acre. Today it is estimated that the state’s farmers (about 29,000 in number) get more than twice that—at 43 bushels per acre in 2012. 


There is a wide market for soybeans because they are so versatile. They provide more protein per acre than most other uses of the land. Soybeans are an inexpensive, high-quality protein for animal feed as well as for pre-packaged meals. They can be eaten in numerous ways—as flour, milk, infant formula, tofu and soy sauce, to name a few. In industry, their uses are many. Paint, carpet, fuel, resins and plastic composites are just a sampling of the products which utilize soybeans.

Factors driving the soybean increase

  • In 1929 agricultural scientist Walter J. Morse, sometimes called the “father of soybeans in America”, began a two-year exploration through Asia, gathering new varieties of soybeans, learning methods of growing, and uses. He returned with 10,000 new varieties which became the basis for U.S. research and eventual leadership in the field.
  • In 1932–33, the Ford Motor Company spent over one million dollars on soybean research. By 1935, every Ford car had soy involved in its manufacture. For example, soybean oil was used to paint the automobile, as well as fluid for shock absorbers. Ford’s involvement with the soybean opened many doors for agriculture and industry to be linked more strongly than ever before.
  • WWII created a demand for soy oil because the U.S. was no longer able to import oil. In addition the war increased the need for lubricants and plastics.
  • Beginning in 1946 University of Minnesota agronomist, Jean Lambert, worked to develop new varieties of soybeans that made Minnesota a leading soybean state. During his career Lambert developed 18 soybean varieties adapted to various Minnesota climate conditions.
  • In the early 1950s soybean meal became available as a low cost, high protein feed ingredient and became popular with turkey and poultry farmers.
  • In 1967 Minnesota passed the soybean checkoff program. This program was initiated to channel funds into research and development of soybeans. Each time a Minnesota soybean grower made a first sale of beans, a half-cent per bushel was automatically deducted from the check.
  • In 1981 Jim Orf joined the University of Minnesota staff as a soybean geneticist and breeder, following in the footsteps of Lambert.
  • In 1992 Congress passed the Energy Policy Act (EPAct), to encourage the use of biofuels (corn and soybeans) and reduce the use of fossil fuels.

Soybeans and Nutrition

Soybeans contain proteins, vitamins and minerals. Because they contain significant amounts of the essential amino acids, soybeans are considered a complete protein. This makes the soybean useful to vegans and vegetarians. Soybeans are also an excellent source of fiber and phytochemicals. Several large studies have shown that consumption of soy foods is associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer in men and decreased incidence of death and recurrence of breast cancer in women. Consumption of soy may also reduce the incidence of colon cancer.

Soybean farming poses threats to the environment in several ways. It increases nutrient runoff and soil erosion. Because soybeans require weed and insect control, most farmers use pesticides and herbicides. To increase yields, they usually apply fertilizers. These chemicals can get into the food supply and into the ground water. As more and more row crops (corn and soybeans primarily) are planted, animal habitat and native vegetation is destroyed.

If the application of chemicals and the amount of land cultivated are minimized, farmers can continue to provide food for animals and people, while protecting our heritage. This is a careful balancing act for farmers.

Soybeans and the Environment

Soybeans are produced as a monoculture, usually with tilled soil that can impact the environment with possible nutrient runoff and soil erosion. Soybeans usually require weed and insect control, and often supplemental fertilizer. Although soybeans can fix nitrogen and require much less fertilizer than corn or wheat, they still need careful management to eliminate fertilizers or pesticides into nearby streams or lakes. As more and more row crops (corn and soybeans primarily) are planted, animal habitat and native vegetation is reduced which can impact environmental ecosystems.

Soybean seed has been available with pesticide treatments, which can impact beneficial insects such as native bees and honey bees, that inadvertently take the chemicals back to their hives. Farmers are continually improving their management practices to minimize environmental impact while obtaining the highest possible yields. If the application of chemicals and the amount of land cultivated are minimized, farmers can continue to provide food for animals and people, while protecting our heritage. This is a careful balancing act for farmers.

Did You Know?

  • The scientific name for soybeans is Glycene max.
  • The Chinese grew soybeans at least 5,000 years ago.
  • The U.S. consumed 17,700 million pounds of soybean oil in 2011. Soybean oil is the most widely used vegetable oil. It is found in margarines, salad dressings, canned foods, sauces, bakery goods, and processed fried foods.
  • Redwood County, in west central Minnesota, produces the most soybeans.
  • Crayons in a pail
    One acre of soybeans can produce 82,368 crayons, enough to fill 3,432 boxes of 12 crayons each.
  • During the Civil War, soybeans were used in place of coffee because coffee beans were scarce.
  • More soybeans are grown in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.
  • Soybeans are a major ingredient in livestock feed.
  • Soy is a good source of protein for humans and animals.
  • Soybeans add nitrogen to the soil.
  • Soy oil is used in inks, varnishes, and paints.

For more information see the 10 Plants That Changed Minnesota MSHS book.