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Reflections on soybeans
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My topic this week may be a surprise. Soybeans seldom make headlines in our hectic world. My own interest in them comes from walking among row upon row of soybeans during my daily strolls around the fields and hills of Pleasant Cove.
  The more I watched the soybeans grow, the more curious I became about where they fit into the grand scheme of things. What I found out fascinated me and I hope it will interest you too.
  Soybeans are steeped in history. Dating back at least 5,000 years to China, they were used there as food and for making medicine. Soybeans have been grown here in the USA for nearly 250 years. The first soybean crop raised in the USA was probably planted in Georgia by Samuel Bowen in 1765. First used as forage for livestock, soybeans took a big leap forward in 1904, when agricultural scientist George Washington Carver found them to be a valuable source of protein and oil. From feed for animals to food for humans, and from soy biodiesel to soy crayons and beyond, soybeans have come a long way in our culture and our economy.
 Over the past century, soybeans have become a valuable cash crop for states across the nation. Illinois leads the list with 460 million bushels produced in 2013. Soybeans are Tennessee’s top cash crop, contributing about 11 percent to the state’s total agricultural receipts.   
  Soybeans have long ranked high in national production and export, with the USA leading the pack in both categories until 2013, when Brazil captured the crown of top soybean exporter. Now Brazil is threatening to surpass the USA in soybean production, too.
USDA estimates have upgraded the 2014 Brazilian crop output to 88 million tons. That’s about 3 million tons ahead of forecast U.S. output.
 Soybeans are big business nationally and here at home. They can be risky business, too. Subject to the vicissitudes of value, driven by supply and demand, sale prices for soybeans can fluctuate wildly. Just ask my good friend and neighbor David Grissom, who’s been growing soybeans for 50 years. “Last year, we sold our soybeans for about $14 a bushel. This year, we’re getting $9.20 a bushel. That’s a huge drop, especially since overhead costs have continued to go up.”
  Hardy though they are, soybeans are also vulnerable to the whims of weather. Droughts can damage and even destroy entire crops in some areas, leaving other areas untouched, and their value enhanced by their relative increase in demand. Groundhogs and rabbits can take a toll as well. True for other crops, too, that truth is small consolation to soybean growers with nothing to show for six months of effort and expense.
  Thanks to David Grissom’s son and fellow soybean entrepreneur Mike Grissom, I recently got “up close and personal” with soybeans. He took me on a John Deere combine “Turbo Tutorial” around the soybean fields near my writer’s cottage.
  As the rows of soybeans fell before us, caught up in the crush that would thrust them into the world beyond, I was struck by the nexus of crop and commerce and the learned labor it took to make it all happen.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at