U.S. soybean growers produced a record 2.7-billion-bushel crop last year, yet prices hit $7/bu at harvest and are expected to average $6.50 for the 1997-98 marketing year.

The reason: Strong worldwide demand for soybeans and soy products. And much of the credit goes to the soybean checkoff, says Byron Lemoine, United Soybean Board (USB) chairman.

"We firmly believe checkoff-funded activities have driven much of this demand," asserts Lemoine, a Hamburg, LA, grower.

He points out that export sales remain reasonably strong despite the recent Asian economic crisis and big production gains in Brazil and Argentina. Those two countries - our main export competitors - have increased bean production 53% since 1990.

USB, consisting of 58 farmer-directors from across the country, is charged with investing money collected in the one-half of 1% soybean checkoff. Instituted in 1991, the checkoff generated about $40 million last year.

Lemoine offers several before-and-after figures:

* The farm-gate value of the U.S. soybean crop - $11.1 billion in 1990 - jumped to $17.5 billion in 1997.

* Farmers' average per-acre gross income from soybeans was $186 in 1989 and $254 last year - a 36.4% increase.

* From 1989 to '96, U.S. soybean oil exports rose 49.2%.

* During the same period, soybean meal exports rose 29.6%.

"While the soybean checkoff can't claim all the credit for these changes, I believe it has made a strong contribution," states Lemoine.

The checkoff's benefits were validated in a recent independent study, which showed an $8 return in farmers' net income for each $1 invested in foreign market development and production research.

Those two spending areas get the most emphasis, and both are showing significant growth.

Last year's 39-bu national average yield - the second highest in history - wouldn't have happened without improvements in varieties and other inputs made possible by the checkoff, says Lemoine. And the use of biotechnology to improve yield potential, pest resistance and other traits in soybean varieties should bring faster gains in the future.

USB's two other spending areas - domestic marketing and new uses - are critically important, too. In the domestic marketing arena, the board, partnered with the U.S. Meat Export Federation, hopes to increase pork exports by 1 million tons by 2000. That would increase domestic soybean use by 34 million bushels, says Lemoine.

Two new uses for soybeans - in crayons and fingerjoint glue for the lumber industry - were introduced last year, and several more are coming. If USB meets its goal, new uses will generate potentially significant new demand by 2005.

To meet the growing demand from the various domestic and export markets, the U.S. will need a 3-billion-bushel annual soybean crop by 2005, says Lemoine.

"We have to consistently grow a 3-billion-bushel crop to maintain our position as the leading producer of soybeans in the world," he declares.

Some growers worry that bigger crops will mean lower prices. But increased demand, coupled with lower production costs, should make the crop more profitable, says the USB chair.

Cost reductions will come via efforts to control soybean cyst nematodes and other yield-robbing pests. Varieties with more yield potential, flood and drought tolerance, and other needed traits, will cut costs, too.

Also, USB is supporting efforts to develop varieties with specific quality traits, such as higher lysine, thiamin and protein levels. Those varieties could increase crop value for growers, says Lemoine.