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The Many Faces of Soy

You’d think as a Dietitian, I would start this blog by writing about all the wonderful health benefits of soy, of which there are many…. But that’s not the focus of this blog. This blog is to describe to you the versatility of soy from a farmer’s perspective and what goes into getting soy from the field to the table.

On our farm, we grow 3 “types” of soy: seed-grade soy, feed-grade soy, and food-grade soy.

First, a few definitions:

Seed-grade soy: Seed-grade soybeans are grown by farmers to be planted the following growing season. Essentially, these are soybeans grown simply to be producers of seed and not converted into any type of animal or human product. They must meet purity standards for being true to their specific variety of soybeans.

Feed-grade soy: The primary use of these soybeans is as animal feed. Feed-grade soybeans make up the bulk of the soybean production in the USA. While they still must meet certain quality standards, they do not have to meet any purity standards regarding the type of variety of soybean. The nutritional analysis of this type of soybean is usually 36% protein which when fed to livestock meets part of their daily nutritional requirements for protein. Livestock diets must be well balanced for those animals to be healthy, productive and provide us with quality cuts of meat.

Food-grade soy: These soybeans are used in the production of soy foods such as tofu, soy-milk, sprouts and other soy-based foods. The nutritional analysis of food-grade soybeans is generally higher in protein than that of feed-grade soybeans. Food-grade soybeans range between 42-45% protein. A higher level of protein in the soybean helps make a better soy food product.

The development of each of these types of soybeans is market-driven, created by demand for the particular characteristics of soybean needed in each respective industry.

Both seed- and food-grade soybeans are grown for bonus pay or what we farmers call a premium. We get a higher price per bushel when we sell seed- or food-grade soybeans than what feed-grade soybeans are selling for at the local grain elevator. The reason for this is because these soybeans require something called “Identity Preservation” or IP. Using IP means that farmers ensure the purity of each variety of soybean. There is no blending of soybeans from other varieties and “contamination” between varieties will result in that batch being rejected. This means we clean out our planters, combines, trucks, grain carts, and grain bins to be sure that there is no “contaminating” soybeans left behind from the previous use of that equipment. If you do not like detailed housekeeping, then you would not like to be a grower of seed- or food-grade soybeans. Vacuuming a combine is not fun or easy.

Soybeans are vigorously tested to ensure that the identity is preserved or that they are in fact are the specific soybeans of a specific variety that was planted in a specific field. We keep detailed records about which varieties are planted where and which tanks they go into, always cleaning out the equipment before changing over to the next variety. We frequently grow 3-5 different varieties of soybeans, so the combine, trucks, and bins get cleaned multiple times throughout harvest season!

So why would a farmer grown one or another…? Well like the old saying “location, location, location”, farmer’s say “market, market, market”. Is there a local market for the crop, and if so, how does that crop fit into your farm’s business plan?

My farm’s plan is to add value to each acre we grow, so we look for opportunities to grow crops at premium prices. Because we live in the Mid-Atlantic region, we are 1 ½ hours from Washington DC, Baltimore, or Philadelphia, and 3 hours from New York City. Because of our diverse urban neighbors, we have a strong outlet for food-grade soybeans through predominantly Asian soy-food processors. Our “tofu beans” go through stringent quality testing be sure they have sufficient protein, that their identify is “preserved” and meet those required purity standards, that the soybeans are uniform in color and size, and that they are at the correct moisture level so that they don’t mold while sitting in bags waiting to be processed into soy-foods. Through a local farmer’s cooperative, we haul pallets of 60 pound bags of tofu beans to these cities where our buyers who are small mom and pop tofu and soy food makers turn them into food items on the grocery store shelves.

As a farmer, I wanted to share this story with you so you can gain an appreciation for the fact that there are many different types of soybeans, they are not all created equal. As a consumer I think you should know the extent to which we farmers go to ensure the identity and the quality of soybeans used in our food supply.
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