The quirks of a year like this one – or just about any year, in fact – point out the need for well funded and focused ag research, Jason Bean says. He just finished a term as the United Soybean Board’s (USB) production committee chair, after serving nine years on the committee and 12 years on the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council.
He’s walking soybean rows in a field not far from Holcomb, Mo., counting seeds per pod. Why, for one perplexing example, would flood-irrigated, lush, perfect-looking plants like these not set more pods? Why couldn’t they push on to 75, 85, even 100 bu./acre? What curbed their potential?
It’s the kind of riddle we depend on scientists to solve, and that Bean works to adequately fund. That’s a struggle, however, with today’s budget cutting among lawmakers and university administrators. If he worries about funding issues a bit more than the average farmer, he comes by it legitimately.
Funding is going to be very tough, for example, for centers like the University of Missouri Jake Fisher Delta Research Center, where he is the advisory board chair, he says.
That, he says, is where USB can help with directed funding efforts. “Thanks to the (soybean) acreage increase and better price, USB has a $100-million budget now. When I went on the USB board, it was $40 million,” he says.
“That sounds like a lot, but the whole USB budget for a year equates to 10 days of research for Dupont or Monsanto or Syngenta. The question is, where does pubic research fit in? What can we do better at a public institution than private industry?”
Turning virtually all ag research over to the corporations could set us up for problems, he says, since corporations, rightly enough, focus on one thing: profit.
“Industry wants to sell varieties that yield. That’s good. But we also want to fill in those gaps where they’re not putting much effort. That’s tricky,” Bean says.
“Public research looks to USB as well as to the major seed research companies to partner on funding. The competition for funding is fixing to ramp up. Programs with the best researchers are going to get the money, whether it’s from USB or a corporate grant.”
Those research gaps could well be regional. He cites some from his own Missouri Bootheel area.
“The Bootheel had been using Group V maturity soybean varieties. Changing to Group 4.5 to 4.8 is helping us be more profitable. The Group V beans maxed out at 50 bu./acre; Group 4.5 can go 70. Private industry didn’t emphasize which soybean grows best in different latitudes. USB, though, can, and direct money to that work,” he says.
“Simple research keeps farmers at the cutting edge. Look at corn. We let the privates come out with the trait for earworm. That’s their role. But public research can look at questions like whether we’re better off with 116-day corn or 119. With public money coordinating with the privates, we can get the best of both worlds.”
However, soybeans still need the Big Answer to the crop’s Big Problem: soybean cyst nematode (SCN). In a sense, the work scientists have been doing is akin to a doctor concentrating on curing a patient’s toenail-fungus problem while a cancerous tumor slowly kills him.
“SCN is our biggest yield robber nationwide,” Bean says. “We’ve spent a lot of money trying to figure it out and haven’t found that miracle cure yet. It’s now 2012, and the best answer is still to rotate with corn or milo.
“SCN races adapt very fast, which makes it a very challenging thing to work on. Soybean cyst nematodes are amazing little creatures. We have dumped millions and millions of dollars into this.”
Bean’s led of board meetings across the country, of listening to scientists make their pitch for funding, of looking firsthand at research, has been interesting. He traveled to China to learn how to do a better job of marketing there. He saw flood-tolerant soybean varieties in Vietnam. He was intrigued to discover firsthandthat, contrary to what we usually hear in the U.S., Brazil actually has a pretty good transportation system to move soybeans and grain to export terminals.
“When we talk about feeding the world, how many cuts are we going to make? We’re going to have to see good collaboration between the public and private sectors.”
Bean, 41, educated at the University of Missouri, looks for practical things that work. He also knows when to cut bait and move on. Perhaps it’s genetic.
Back in the 1970s, his father Otto, who was also on the experiment station’s advisory board and became a state legislator, understood that cotton would never be competitive on the farm’s soil. He redirected much of his effort into other crops. The family eventually put fields to zero grade to plant rice and to flood-irrigate.
“We turned horrible ground into excellent fields for soybeans and rice.
“Our soybean varieties are yielding so much more than they were. Our markets are a lot better. We need to appreciate that a lot of hard work has been done through the years by people like David Haggard and Sandy Ludeman who looked to the future and anticipated what we would need in the decades to come.”