USA: Expanding conventional soybean markets and filling niches
Jan. 12, 2018
Mid-South producers looking to plant conventional soybeans in 2018 should consider varieties being offered by the Arkansas-based Natural Soybean and Grain Alliance (NSGA). Of special note going into a new cropping season is DrewSoy, an early Group 5.
“This is the third soybean variety we’ve licensed,” says Lanny Ashlock, president of the NSGA. “We were interested in getting a soybean a little earlier than the portfolio we’d developed.
“About three years ago, we licensed a food variety, a non-GMO or ‘conventional’, from the University of Arkansas. It’s a really good bean for tofu, soy milk and the like. It’s a mid-Group 5 and that’s about as late as people want to plant.”
The alliance then licensed a very high-protein variety largely for the livestock industry, says Ashlock, former University of Arkansas soybean specialist. “The poultry sector is particularly interested in this variety, which is good-yielding and late-maturing. For some people a late Group 5 is an Achilles’ heel.
“Regardless, we were interested in an earlier-maturing variety. Growers in a rotation need that.”
Early in 2017, the opportunity came to license a very early Group 5, a public variety out of breeder Grover Shannon’s Missouri-based program. DrewSoy is “almost a 4.9 maturity but since it’s a determinate, we stuck with a 5.0 designation. It comes from an outstanding breeding program and has a tremendous disease package while retaining its very good yield potential.”
To a degree, the NSGA “was borne out of successful work in initiating the edamame soybean industry here in Arkansas,” says Kelly Cartwright, NSGA executive director. “(Ashlock) and I were both very involved with that effort and it helped pave the way in thinking about how to capitalize on some of these emerging conventional markets.”
The idea for the Natural Soybean Grain Alliance took off in 2013/2014. “We laid the foundation for the alliance with the idea we’d get into conventional, non-GMO certification to add value in emerging markets.”
Then, in 2014, the group licensed the aforementioned variety out of the breeding program at the University of Arkansas.
“That kind of set us on a slightly different track,” says Cartwright. “In 2015, we licensed another variety, a high-protein variety, named Ashlock. That’s an exceptional high-protein variety. So, even though we were percolating in 2014 we really didn’t get off the ground in a big way until 2015.”
Since then, the NSGA has “tried to develop these varieties and get them into producers’ hands. We’re a non-profit but a C5 non-profit. So, we can have sales as long as they’re in the mission of the organization – in this case, agriculture.”
Cartwright and colleagues also do “a lot of project development, grant writing and things like that. Right now, we’re working on an aromatic rice project, seeing if we can develop some markets in different areas of the state. So, it isn’t just soybeans although that crop has been the bell cow for our startup organization.
DrewSoy is named in honor of Drew Oliver.
“We had this variety in the works before we even knew Drew Oliver had serious health problems,” says Ashlock. “Like everyone else, I was so shocked when he passed away.
“Drew was a major player in helping us organize the alliance. Drew and others have, on occasion, been able to get some good premiums for conventional varieties. One year, a soy milk manufacturer ran out of beans they like to make their product. They called over here and found some Arkansas farmers growing a public variety called Ozark. They sent trucks to farmers’ fields they needed the beans so bad. They dumped the combines into the trucks which then headed to the plant to make milk.”
While that occurred a few years back, growers never forgot about it. “And that’s one reason why the public breeding program in Arkansas has some varieties that will fit that niche when such an opportunity presents itself again.”
Oliver was a big backer of the University of Arkansas public breeding program. He also understood, says Ashlock, “the importance of the checkoff program, which drives the breeding program. He wanted us to have better public, conventional soybean varieties that could compete in the marketplace and still provide genetics for those who want, whether we agree with them or not, only non-GMOs.”
Oliver “thought the checkoff dollars should give Arkansas farmers a leg up on providing what buyers want. He’d say ‘There’s no reason the state can’t be recognized for this. If you want well-adapted, conventional, high-yielding soybean varieties, come to Arkansas and shop.’
“That certainly made sense to me and is a large reason why I began working with the Natural Soybean Grain Alliance. We just want to get these varieties from the breeders to the growers.”
That variety that became DrewSoy “was doing well and then we got the news of Drew’s passing,” says Cartwright. “We started talking to some folks in our organizations, and outside, about how to proceed. Drew was an outside-the-box thinker, a mover and shaker, a champion of hooking in to emerging markets. He saw Arkansas as being positioned to take advantage of such markets.”
One thing to note about the alliance’s approach is “these soybean varieties are branded with those particular names within NSGA,” says Cartwright. “They all have assigned variety names within the breeding programs/university system. Then, we brand them once they are licensed. So, the brand names are exclusive to NSGA.”
Ashlock says DrewSoy “is great with diseases that typically impact many of our Mid-South soybean producers. If the weather is right, farmers want to roll in late March. This variety would still yield exceptionally well but it would be pretty short.
“Here’s another thing to keep in mind: if you’re on rows wider than 30 inches, it may not lap so that could complicate weed control. Since it’s a non-GMO, we want to avoid that because, obviously, we already have enough weed issues to deal with.”
The variety is very defensive-minded as it’s resistant to frogeye leafspot and stem canker. It also has resistance to five races of soybean cyst nematode.
“The more we grow varieties resistant to one race we select for races of nematodes that can reproduce on those genetics. So, this variety brings a lot to the table for those with cyst nematode problems.
“That’s one reason I thought, ‘Man, we can get a variety early to mature, has multiple resistances to cyst nematode, it has resistance to frogeye and stem canker? We can be a step ahead in the game.’”
DrewSoy also has at least moderate resistance to rootknot nematode. “That’s a factor I’m getting comments about,” says Ashlock. “The rootknot problems seem to have increased on really good cotton soils that were converted to corn – a bit finer sandy loams. So, there’s interest in this soybean from that perspective.
“If you want a conventional variety, we believe we have one that will really fit the bill in the Mid-South for many growers.”
Interest and questions
How is the NSGA drawing attention from emerging markets? Is interest all domestic?
“It isn’t all domestic,” says Cartwright. “We’ve had some work with China, inquiries from South America. Domestically, we’ve tried to work with a lot of Midwest companies that are focused on non-GMO products. It’s a difficult orbit to break into, truthfully.”
Asked about typical queries from producers, Cartwright says the most common is “are premiums available? What we’ve found is farmers are willing to grow conventionals if there’s a premium attached. Questions on logistics are also common. Do I have to take these (non-GMO) crops somewhere? Do I have to store them?”
Regarding premiums, Cartwright says “there is, right now, a consistent and excellent premium program for conventional soybeans offered by a state-based company that is well established. Some producers think premium programs are sort of hit-or-miss based on an ADM, Bunge or Consolidated grain that comes around on occasion. But that’s not the case. This state-based company has been offering a really nice premium for several years now.”
And the alliance isn’t just interested in conventional soybeans.
“I’m working closely with Kelly on aromatic rice,” says Ashlock. “We checked a sample grown last season, a jasmine type non-GMO that looks really good. The farmer was very enthused about it and plans to plant more in 2018. He commented on how sweet the rice smells even out in the field – especially late in the season.
“With this alliance we’re looking for opportunities that growers can utilize and expand markets.”