Soybean South

 - From the Editor -

From Afterthought To Moneymaker

By Carroll Smith

In the South, for many years soybeans were planted almost as an afterthought. Cotton was King and always claimed the best ground, took top priority at planting time, thrived on water from irrigation systems during the hot summer months, was picked, ginned and baled, then moved into a comfy warehouse while waiting to be shipped out to domestic and overseas mills. And, in return, cotton, for the most part, delivered a handsome profit to the farmers who grew “White Gold.”

Once the cotton crop was taken care of, Southern farmers threw in their beans on leftover marginal land – usually dryland – walked away and prayed for rain to carry the crop to harvest. Depending on the year, soybean yields might range anywhere from 15 to 25 bushels per acre at $4 to $5 per bushel, and harvest could easily run into Thanksgiving and early December.

To be fair, a blip in this tale did occur when the unimaginable happened – July 1973 soybeans set the all time high at $12.90 per bushel!

Southern farmers scurried to clear land to grow more soybeans, and many a high school or college student was recruited during the summer to “pull stumps” to get the new ground in shape. The crop enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame, then prices dropped off, and Southern soybeans’ glory days faded into the background.

Fast forward a few years to 2002. Based on numbers from USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Southern soybean yields averaged 30 bushels per acre, and the price per bushel hovered in the $5.50-cent range, which adds up to $165 per acre minus costs. Five years later in 2007, Georgia beans averaged 30 bushels per acre at $11.90 per bushel for a total of $357 per acre, and Louisiana came in at 43 bushels per acre at $8.43 per bushel for $362.49.

And, according to University of Missouri market analyst Melvin Brees in the article “Storing Beans Discouraged” on page 8 (an excerpt from his monthly commentary “Decisive Marketing”), “The recent soybean futures price rally and basis strength have offered cash soybean prices…with cash bids near $9.30 to more than $10 at locations across Missouri.”

These attractive market prices are eye catching, but it’s also important to note that Southern soybean yields continue to increase. Remember that the USDA-NASS numbers are averages, and yields in the 50+ bushel range are not uncommon these days. It’s a fact that Southern soybean farmers are investing more in high-tech seed, seed treatments, irrigation and other inputs to produce a high-yielding, high-quality crop.

However, don’t get me wrong. Cotton hasn’t given up its throne in the South. It’s just that soybeans are pulling more of their weight than they used to in contributing to a farmer’s bottom line. And as the crop morphs from afterthought into its present status as moneymaker, the day has come when it’s good to be a Southern soybean.