Folio — From the September 2017 issue

Bringing in the Beans

Harvest on an American family farm

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The overproduction of corn by the American agricultural industry has generated a lot of attention in recent years, as food activists and environmentalists have grown worried about the middle of the country turning into a vast monoculture. But that’s only half the picture. The corn boom, to a remarkable extent, has been made possible by a coequal boom in alternate-year planting of millions of acres of soybeans. In many ways, corn and soybeans seem made for each other. Soybeans are a natural nitrogen-fixer, replenishing the soil for nitrogen-hungry corn hybrids, and the plants share almost none of the same pests or diseases, preventing insects, molds, and bacteria from overtaking fields. But the soybean is more than an enabler of King Corn. It is, in fact, far and away the most successful crop introduced to the American farm in the past century.

In 1920, there were fewer than a million acres of soybeans planted in the entire United States. But soybean production boomed beginning in the 1930s — surpassing barley production by 1940, cotton in the 1950s, oats in the 1960s, and wheat and hay in the 1970s. This year, the number of acres planted to soybeans is expected to reach 90 million — virtually equal to the acreage of cornfields — and almost all of those acres are concentrated in the Midwest and on the Great Plains. How did the soybean, a legume native to East Asia and traditionally used primarily in foods from China, come to have such a place of prominence here? The rise of the soybean in the United States is attributable to, more than to any other person, Henry Ford.

Soybean laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan, 1930. Courtesy the collections of
The Henry Ford. Page border: Soybean display, Ford Exposition, New York
World’s Fair, 1940 (detail). Courtesy the collections of The Henry Ford

In the early twentieth century, the American farm underwent a period of unmatched innovation. The arrival of the gas-powered tractor for plowing, the combine for harvesting, and affordable trucks for hauling grain to market made it possible for farmers to plant more and more acres and to manage those acres with fewer farmhands. But by the mid-Twenties, the market was flooded with grain, depressing prices and endangering the very family farms that the technological revolution had promised to empower. Farmers began calling for research to develop new uses for existing agricultural supply rather than continuing to search for ways to increase yields.

In January 1927, Wheeler McMillen, an associate editor of the popular magazine Farm and Fireside, published a watershed article entitled “Wanted: Machines to Eat Up Our Crop Surplus.” He wrote that he had been receiving panicked letters from farmers lamenting that more grain was being produced than people could possibly eat. McMillen suggested that chemical compounds in plants might be converted into industrial products, and even advocated for government backing for such research. “There is no wrong in channeling some federal funds into farmers’ pockets,” he wrote, considering that the American farmer “by cheap food has subsidized the growth of cities.”

Among McMillen’s most interested readers was the owner of the Ford Motor Company. Ford, after all, manufactured much of the equipment that had contributed to booming yields — and if the company was to maintain that market share, it had to find a way to sustain its customers. To Henry Ford’s mind, it also made perfect sense to subsidize research into the uses of farm products, because he was already growing concerned about dwindling petroleum supplies. Numerous auto parts were made from petroleum-based plastics, and, of course, all of Ford’s engines ran on diesel and gasoline refined from petroleum crude. “If we want the farmer to be our customer,” he said, “we must find a way to be his customer.” In early 1928, he met with McMillen to discuss this new field of research — what was eventually dubbed “chemurgy” — and came away even more convinced that the key driver should be private industry, not the government.

Ford authorized dramatically expanding the agricultural laboratory at his headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. Under his direct supervision, technicians experimented with a staggering range of vegetables, fruits, grasses, legumes, tubers, and roots to determine which plants might contain high levels of cellulose for plastics and which might contain sugars that could be converted to ethanol. All efforts were aimed at finding replacements for petroleum while propping up American agriculture.

The stock market crash in October 1929 exacerbated the financial crisis for farmers. Ford publicly advocated continuing full production of all crops and again urged the government to resist stepping in. “The farmer and the chemist will solve farm relief, not the politician,” he told the New York Times. Nevertheless, the USDA sent emissaries around the world in search of new crops that could be planted on American farms — crops intended for industrial use, not food. On one such trip to China, more than ten thousand soybean varieties were gathered. Learning of this, Ford urged his staff to look at the soybean. They found that the plant had unexpected levels of usable oils and yielded high-protein soy meal after the oil was extracted. In short, it appeared that the soybean could be used to produce industrial lubricants and that the byproduct could be turned into plastics.

The results were so encouraging that, in 1932, Ford approved $1 million in new research funding, and that spring had 300 varieties of soybeans planted on 8,000 acres of his own farmland in rural Michigan. The next year, he expanded it to 12,000 acres — making him the single largest soybean grower in the United States. That same year he announced that he would buy any soybeans delivered to the Dearborn plant. To encourage production, he made 400 Fordson tractors available for free use to Michigan farmers and offered gas and diesel at a penny per gallon — less than a quarter of what it cost at the pump. Farmers put more than 35,000 acres of land into growing soybeans, and Ford bought their entire output as promised. It was a daring move but good business.

Ford also put the full muscle of his publicity machine behind promoting soybeans. He hosted the national convention of the American Soybean Association, promoted blending ethanol into gasoline, and gave a series of interviews, telling one reporter that he envisioned a time when much of an automobile “could be made from by-products of agriculture.” He even announced a plan to decentralize Ford production by opening a constellation of factories in rural areas to manufacture plastic parts made from local soybeans. Ford bragged that he used soybean oil in his paint and as a lubricant in his casting molds. When soybean meal was combined with formaldehyde, it could produce a thermoplastic resin, which was used to make distributor caps, gearshift knobs, and horn buttons. “There is a bushel of soya beans in every Ford car,” Fortune declared. “He is as much interested in the soya bean as he is in the V-8.”

In 1934, Ford’s promotions got an unexpected boost. The first of several years of severe drought — what proved to be the worst in American history — engulfed 75 percent of the country. Corn and wheat withered in the fields. Amid rampant crop failures, farmers harvested 23 million bushels of soybeans, a better yield than most crops and far better than its oil-producing competitors, such as linseed and canola. The following spring, farmers planted roughly 45 million bushels of soybeans. Selling for fifty cents a bushel during the worst years of the Great Depression, soybeans were hailed as a godsend. Soybean trading was so active and central to industry that the Chicago Board of Trade started offering soybean futures for the first time. By the end of the 1930s, the soybean harvest was exceeding 75 million bushels per year. Time magazine declared Henry Ford “a bean’s best friend.”

But no sooner had industry begun to move away from petroleum than the world’s largest oil reserves were discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938. The barrel price of crude oil fell precipitously, and the demand for petroleum substitutes waned. Ford continued to extol the virtues of soybean products, but industrial applications for soybeans were now seen as impractical. During the years when grain crops were failing, however, animal feeders had discovered that livestock fed an oil-rich soybean diet bulked up quickly. With demand from Ford and other automakers no longer elevating prices, milling companies, hoping to capitalize on their existing supply, were eager to get into the soybean trade.

In 1939, Archer Daniels Midland announced the construction of a modern soybean plant and elevator in Decatur, Illinois. Soon after, Cargill launched an aggressive bid of its own into soybean processing. By the harvest of that year, soybean mills dotted the Mississippi River, and the American Farm Bureau Federation sponsored hundreds of events to encourage farmers to plant soybeans and instruct them on how to achieve top yields. For the first time, the middle of the country was also the center of soybean production in America, and those farmers were now well positioned to take advantage when the United States was pulled into World War II.

Rick Hammond showing the larva of a stem borer found inside a soybean stalk

When Hitler began his march across Europe, there were sudden scarcities of edible oils and fats — much of which had previously been imported from Mediterranean countries. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government pushed agricultural producers to achieve record output, and soybeans increased from 78 million bushels in 1943 to 193 million in 1945. Yet Cargill and ADM struggled to make a profit because President Roosevelt and Congress had worked together to pass price-control legislation, creating the Office of Price Administration and thus establishing fixed prices on animal feed.

After the war, however, when the government slowly started to roll back its strictures, feed prices rose sharply. As Ford had always feared, government involvement, instituting price controls and later subsidies, made farmers subject to the whims of federal farm policy — and the agribusiness interests that controlled that policy. But by then, Ford was too sick and old to keep up the fight. He turned the company over to his grandson, and, just two years later, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Without his guiding vision, soybean production for industrial purposes waned sharply for several decades, but the market for feeding livestock boomed like never before.

When wartime rationing officially ended in 1947, the American public wanted French wine and a good steak. Nationwide, consumption of meat rose by more than 20 percent, and the federal government heavily subsidized corn and soybean production to keep up with the demand. Ever since, the prices of commodity grains have risen and fallen according to the demand of livestock feeders.

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is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food. A form of this article will appear in This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm, out this month from W. W. Norton. Genoways lives outside Lincoln, Nebraska. This article was produced in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.

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