Members of a soybean tour group watch as a fireman operates a water cannon on a fire truck at Lambert St. Louis International Airport. All airport vehicles with diesel engines operate on biodiesel as part of the airport’s sustainability campaign.
Members of a soybean tour group watch as a fireman operates a water cannon on a fire truck at Lambert St. Louis International Airport. All airport vehicles with diesel engines operate on biodiesel as part of the airport’s sustainability campaign.
ST. LOUIS — A group of soybean farmers from around the country have gotten a close-up look at where their crop goes, thanks to the checkoff program.

The farmers were chosen for this year’s See for Yourself program. The event is sponsored by the United Soybean Board, which distributes checkoff funds.

This year, 10 farmers traveled from St. Louis to Colombia and Panama. The trip was scheduled to include a tour of the Panama Canal, through which soybeans — among other crops — are transported.

“Fifty percent of our soybeans end up being exported,” said Brent Babb of the Soybean Export Council. “Over 25 percent of that goes to China. That’s our key market, but by far not our only market.”

Among other stops, the group was scheduled to tour a leading feed manufacturer in Colombia. The day prior to the departure, the farmers toured a number of sites in St. Louis, including the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, one of the world’s largest not-for-profit agricultural research facilities.

Soybean production has grown 158 percent since the 1980s, according to Babb. But increasing demand has more than kept up with the growth.

“It’s far and away the major commodity growing the fastest,” Babb said. “That production is coming from South America in the last decade, but a lot from the U.S. When I first started in the late ‘90s, it seemed as if Brazil was going to put U.S. farmers out of soybean production. But the world has consumed every bit of it. Demand is there, even at $14 or $15.”

USB represents nearly 590,000 soybean farmers, who grew nearly 3 billion bushels of soybeans on more than 70 million acres last year.

“It’s a huge program,” said USB Executive Director Lisa O’Brien. “Our purpose, the bottom line, is to maximize profit opportunities for all soybean farmers.”

The group visited the Archer Daniels Midland facility on the St. Louis riverbank and learned about the company’s role in the export market.

Dean Durdan, ADM’S commodity trader in St. Louis, noted that 40 million to 60 million bushels of soybeans are handled annually at the company’s St. Louis and nearby Sauget, Ill., facilities.

St. Louis is in a unique geographic position for trading agricultural commodities, according to Durdan.

“There are advantages that make this a main hub for export,” he said. You’ve got bigger barges you can load in this location versus the Illinois River. We can load 13- to 14-foot drafts here in St. Louis. In (the Illinois River), we can only go as much as 12-foot, so they can’t load as deep.

“Plus, there is a freight advantage, which gives us a basis advantage to buy grain. Another thing is our proximity to Class 1 railroads. We’re not held hostage to just truck.”

St. Louis also is south of the southernmost lock, eliminating delays on the trip downriver to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

Demand for U.S. soy is increasing globally, Durdan noted. And that growth is not just in meal used for animal feed.

“We’re boosting use of soy, both domestic and internationally,” Durdan said. “We have efforts relating to industrial products. There’s a lot going on with your checkoff.”

U.S. soybean producers have one advantage over their foreign counterparts, according to Babb. The sustainability of farming in the U.S. is demonstrable, largely because of biotechnology.

“Sustainability is becoming much more of an issue for global buyers,” Babb said. “Sustainability is conservation tillage, GPS, precision farming. Everything we do is to reduce input.

“On your farm you’re always looking at how do I reduce input? Some of that is you are concerned about the environment, but a big part is the economic benefit. A hundred percent of farmers should say sustainability is a big thing. Everyone wants fewer inputs.

“We do have a good story. We’re by far the most sustainable. Even Europe, where a lot of this discussion starts, they’ll go over their fields 12 to 14 times. Be proud of this conservation. We didn’t really ask for it, but we have an advantage.”