Top-end soybeans might be good for the bottom line

ON THE BAY

November 22, 2005|By TOM HORTON

Across the Eastern Shore, it's harvest time for soybeans, and for generations that has mostly meant cut the fields, pile the beans into trucks and haul them off to feed the region's hundreds of millions of chickens.

The farmer's reward, despite a welcome premium paid by local poultry companies, is too often just chicken feed - a result of the flood of imported beans from across the world.

But at the fall board meeting of Chesapeake Fields in Chestertown, the talk is of growing soybeans as "food, not feed."

The difference is as marked as growing grapes for juice versus turning them into fine champagnes - and it has implications that will shape Maryland's future.

A Chesapeake Fields farmer gives an update on edamames, a type of soybean popular as hors d'oeuvres in sushi restaurants, also in soy burgers. A potential buyer wants 44,000 pounds a month.

The questions fly: The buyer's beans now are coming from China. They're hand-shelled. Can we machine-pick them? Yes, tests show setting the harvesters for baby lima beans does a fine job. Is color a factor? We need to find out.

Another board member reports on shipping natto beans to Japan for use in snack foods. The Japanese want a small bean, one with a clear hilum, the tiny eye of the bean that is dark in traditional U.S. varieties.

The potential customers want to know oil and protein content. They want non-GMO (not genetically modified, as the bulk of U.S. beans are now). They want to know the field each shipment of beans comes from.

The payoff for going to all this trouble would be to significantly boost the measly 5 percent of the consumer's food dollar that the average farmer gets now, says John Hall, the Maryland agricultural agent who is founder and president of Chesapeake Fields.

Such increased profitability is key to countering the residential development of farmland that is happening by thousands of acres annually across the Delmarva Peninsula.

By extension, it's also key to reining in the suburban sprawl that threatens the bay region's environment and rural heritage.

In six years since it began here in Kent County, Chesapeake Fields has raised more than a million dollars for research into value-added farming.

The nonprofit research organization has added two for-profit offshoots - a farmers' cooperative to grow specialty grains, and a corporation to process and market its own line of soy snacks, artisan breads and gourmet popcorn.

About 33 farmers with 5,000 acres are currently growing for Chesapeake Fields. It's still small potatoes in a state with 1.5 million acres of cropland.

But the potential is there, Hall says. "We're raising farmers' profits 15 to 20 percent over standard commodity prices now."

A model is North Dakota, a leader in the value-added farming movement. Farmers there have increased profits from 3 percent to 15 percent by becoming the nation's third-largest pasta producer, versus just selling wheat.

Hall says real success will require enlisting a minimum of 50,000 acres in the next five years across the bay's six-state watershed and the Mid-Atlantic.

That will enable Chesapeake Fields to go after bigger contracts, and spreading out the growing area will insulate it from the vagaries of weather that is too dry or too wet.

"John's thinking outside the box, but [value-added] is exactly the way we need to go," says Russ Brinsfield, a farmer who is head of the University of Maryland's Agro-Ecology Center. "The nice thing is it's truly grass-roots, farmer-driven."

Chesapeake Fields' vision doesn't stop there. Hall is raising funds - $1.4 million is the goal - to build a center in Kent County to educate an increasingly urban-suburban public to the values of preserving agriculture.

It would be located in the same complex with production facilities for Chesapeake Fields' products; and it would also be a catalyst for farm-oriented tourism across the Shore.

Beyond that, he sees value-added possibilities for vegetables, wine grapes and dairy products.

None of this is easy, or it would have been done long ago. Guaranteeing the "identity" of soybeans so that quality-conscious buyers can track them to the farm they came from means cleaning harvesting machines, feed augers, trucks and storage bins after each round of the harvest.

Food-grade soybeans must be harvested at precisely the right moisture level so there is no cracking of the beans' skins. Buffers must be maintained around fields to ensure there's no cross-contamination from genetically modified fields nearby.

But Chesapeake Fields has made an impressive beginning, deserving all the support we can give it.

For more information, including retail outlets that carry its line of food products, go to chesapeakefields.com or call 410-810-2082.

twh@intercom.net

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