Sowing a future through soy

August 08, 2006

Feeling helpless against what seems to be an inevitable march of residential and commercial developments through Maryland's farmland? Don't think it's possible for one individual to play a meaningful role in keeping open space open so that second- and third-generation farmers can pass along their livelihoods to their children and grandchildren? As we cudgel our collective brains to find workable solutions toward managing the imminent growth facing the Eastern Shore and much of the agricultural countryside still remaining in the counties around Baltimore, we could end up despairing that there are no remedies.

But a small band of farmers and conservationists based in Kent County is offering some seeds of hope. Formed six years ago to look at how traditional crops can be marketed to a larger and more diverse audience, the not-for-profit Chesapeake Fields Institute has turned the meek soybean into a gourmet snack. Maryland farmers presently reserve about 50,000 acres of farmland for growing soybeans, the low and leafy green plants we see in fields as we drive toward the Atlantic beaches.

Most of the crop is destined for chicken feed - broilers are a $1.7 billion industry on the Delmarva Peninsula - but so far, 3,500 acres have been set aside for producing specialty soybeans intended for human consumption. Chesapeake Fields Farmers, a commercial offshoot of CFI, now manufactures five varieties of roasted soy nuts called Soy Gems and another four flavors of baked soybean crisps named Soy Saucers. By nature, farmers are traditionalists and convincing them to switch to new methods of growing, harvesting and storing soybeans has not been easy. Asking the public to switch from conventional snacks to the more healthful and expensive soybean is another challenge, although the farmers have had success in placing their Gems and Saucers in nearly 100 shops and markets in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The soybean gambit has its risks, but the objective is laudable. Building new and profitable markets for conventional crops will allow farmers to keep at bay the lucrative offers developers are making for their land. And that's where you come in. You can help make a difference - one bite at a time.

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