The soybean farming we all know and love hasn’t always been the star South Dakota crop. What’s now a huge cash crop for South Dakota farmers has evolved quickly through only three generations of South Dakota farm families. We caught up with South Dakota farmer David Iverson to learn more about the history of soybeans in South Dakota and how the industry has rapidly grown.
Q: How did soybean farming begin in South Dakota?
A: I don’t know if it is recorded who first grew soybeans in South Dakota. Soybeans were first grown in the SE part of the state. In 1920 South Dakota College-Agricultural Experiment Station published a bulletin describing the history of the soybean plant. The bulletin contained yield data from 1914-1920. The 7-year yield results were 16-22 bushels per acre. Current yields are 45-75 bushels per acre.
Initially, soybeans were grown as a forage crop and fed to animals. Sometimes they were planted with corn and cut for animal feed. Soybeans grown for grain production slowly gained popularity. Soybeans were grown as an alternative crop for many farmers. Soybeans are now a major cash crop grown in South Dakota.
Q: How did soybean farming evolve to where it is today in South Dakota?
A: The expansion of soybeans in South Dakota is due to many factors. Seed varieties have been developed that grow well in South Dakota. The soybean industry has created many new uses for soybean meal and oil which led to the growth of soybean acres in South Dakota. The ability of South Dakota farmers to adapt to the changing market opportunities is an excellent example of how farmers embrace new opportunities and technology.
Q: What is something people might not know about the history of soybeans?
A: In the early years of soybean production in South Dakota, the harvest was done with threshing machines. In my community, the first combines were used in the 1940s.
My grandfather was the first one to have a combine in our community. He purchased a Massey combine in 1943.
The combine had a 5-foot wide cutting platform. My current combine has a 35-foot wide cutting platform. The 1943 Massey combine harvested 2 rows and all adjustments were done mechanically.
There were no hydraulics or electrical components used in the early combines. My combine uses electronics and hydraulics to perform most tasks.
It is always important to remember how things were done in the past. We can gain an appreciation for the challenges that farmers before us had to endure. It is amazing to see how soybean production has grown in South Dakota. I am proud to be involved in an industry that takes pride in producing a sustainable crop that provides feed, fuel, fiber, and food for the world.
The way soybean farming has been passed from generation to generation and improved upon throughout time is fascinating and reflects on our South Dakota farmers’ incredible work. For more South Dakota farming history, check out our blog on Planting From the Perspective of a Sixth-Generation Farm.