The Well-Travelled Soybean

Once soybeans are harvested, they head out on a journey. Some of them stay close to home and take a road trip around the state. Others opt for international travel and get their passports stamped in China and Indonesia. Ever wonder how soybeans get from farm to table? Read on to follow this important crop’s journey.

South Dakota farmers grew an estimated 238 million bushel soybean crop in 2016 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s a record. Because farmers grow more soybeans than are consumed here and because overseas customers like the quality of South Dakota soybeans, a lot of those beans will end up halfway around the world

Once farmers harvest their soybeans, some are stored in on-farm grain bins to be sold later. Others are taken by truck directly to grain elevators or soybean processors.

The diverse destinations of soybeans.

Journey by Sea
More than 60 percent of South Dakota’s soybeans are exported. Thousands of bushels of soybeans begin their journey being trucked from the farm to local grain elevators. From there, they will be put on trains. Most of South Dakota’s soybeans are transported by rail to shipping ports in the Pacific Northwest. Once there, huge, oceangoing ships will carry them primarily to Asia. It takes about 16 to 18 days for soybeans to travel from the Port of Grays Harbor, Washington, to places like China, Japan, Indonesia and Taiwan, countries that are all important customers for South Dakota soybeans.

Local Flavor
Most of the soybeans grown in South Dakota are used for livestock feed, so soybean crushers, that’s another name for processors, will separate the whole soybeans into meal and oil. For the more homebodied soybeans, most are crushed at processing plants like the one in Volga, South Dakota. The soybean meal is mostly fed to pigs, chickens, ducks and even fish. Soy’s protein content and amino acid profile make it an ideal ingredient for animal feed. While about 80 percent of the soybean ends up as meal, the remaining 20 percent is oil and is often refined for cooking or fuel as biodiesel. You can find it as vegetable oil on grocery store shelves.

Food-grade soybeans grown for foods like tofu, miso and tempeh travel a little differently. They are loaded into containers, huge metal crates you might see carried on flatbed train cars. Like the soybeans loaded in bulk in big ships, containers are delivered to the West Coast and loaded on ocean vessels that will transport the beans to food processors in Asia.

Next time you’re passing by a soybean field, you’ll know that those beans are just beginning a very important journey.

Have you encountered soybeans anywhere along their journey? Tells us about it in the comments.