It's been called the miracle crop for years. And it's becoming more miraculous all the time.
It, of course, is the soybean. There are now more than 1,000 uses, and counting, for this remarkable crop.
Once used only as forage for livestock in the U.S., it's now our second most-valuable cash crop and our No. 1-value export crop. The 1996 U.S. soybean crop, produced on more than 380,000 farms in 29 states, was valued at more than $16 billion.
Yet most people have only a meager understanding of the crop's origin and history. So here's a capsulized summary to help improve your soybean IQ. The information is drawn from credible university, USDA, processing industry and American Soybean Association sources.
Historians suggest the soybean originated around 5,000 years ago in China. Chinese legend tells of traveling merchants who discovered a climbing, vine-like plant that produced small black seeds.
These seeds, filled with protein, little fat and no cholesterol, have been an essential part of Asian diets for centuries. And the Japanese, for example, have one of the lowest cancer rates in the world.
Europeans were introduced to the soybean when Engelbert Kaempfer, a German botanist, studied the plants in Japan, then imported them to Europe. The soybean was considered something of a curiosity in Europe, rather than a viable product, and didn't become a staple part of the European diet.
Soybeans arrived in America in the 19th century. According to early records, they were originally brought to the U.S. on a Yankee clipper ship. The ship, sailing from China to the U.S., used soybeans as ballast.
Upon arrival in the U.S., the soybeans were dumped to make room for cargo. History gets a little fuzzy about where they first took root, but a recent historical find claims the first soybeans were grown in Georgia.
During the Civil War, the soybean got off to an auspicious start with soldiers using the "coffee berries" as a substitute when real coffee was scarce.
By the late 1800s, USDA scientists started planting Asian soybean varieties at ag research stations throughout the U.S. Soybean pioneer William Morse went to China to collect 10,000 varieties for U.S. researchers to study. Morse also started what later became the American Soybean Association.
Farmers caught a glimpse of the soybean's true potential when George Washington Carver started studying it in 1904 at the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama. He discovered that soybeans could be separated into two components: oil and meal. That was the start of the soybean crop's march toward becoming the miracle crop.
Soybean production had grown to around 9 million bushels by 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash. Soybean production reached the Midwest when A.E. Staley expanded his corn processing plant in Decatur, IL, to include soybeans.
Staley put out the word that he would take as many soybeans as farmers could produce. He helped Illinois become one of the top soybean-producing states.
Automobile pioneer Henry Ford became fascinated with the soybean and turned his attention to industrial uses. Ford's investigations revealed that soybean oil could be used for automotive paints and glycerine for shock absorbers. Some of his original paints are still used in the automotive industry today.
Ford also mixed soybean meal with resins to form gearshift knobs, distributor cases and automobile trim. His research became the basis for the development of soybean plastics.
World War II arrived with a bang, creating a need for edible products made from soybeans. German chemists, for example, discovered a soy oil product that could replace lard at 50% of the cost. This substitute became an anti-fatigue biscuit for German soldiers on the march.
In the 1950s, soybean processing technology changed from mechanical to chemical extraction methods, greatly reducing processing costs.
With new plants able to produce edible soy meal at a cheaper price, farmers started using soybean meal as a low-cost, high-protein livestock feed. This new use put the crop on the international market, and the soybean industry started promoting exports of soybeans worldwide.
By the 1970s, the U.S. soybean crop had grown to 78 million bushels on 5 million acres, and the U.S. was a net exporter of soybeans. Today, about every other row of soybeans is sold overseas, and they are the country's best trade-deficit reducer.
So if you're looking for a topic to wow the coffee shop crowd, twist your farm cap at a rakish angle and ask, "Hey, any of you guys know where soybeans came from and when?"