Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Soybean
Nature Bulletin No. 543-A   November 9, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Our common farm crops almost all came from plants which were first domesticated in prehistoric times and distant countries. Within the memory of most farmers, another foreigner -- the Soybean -- has moved into fourth place and surpassed dozens of other farm and garden products. Never before in the history of American agriculture has any crop made such strides in such a short time. Increasing from only a thousand acres grown in 1914, for seed, today these beans are harvested from over 20 million acres. Illinois produces more than any other state and Decatur, where huge processing plants are located, is known as the soybean capital of the world.

The soybean is a native of China where it has been cultivated for about 5000 years. Its wild ancestor is a trailing vine unlike the upright bushy plants of most cultivated varieties. The soybean is a legume. It is not a true bean but no one has found a better name for it. Modern soybeans are from two to three feet high, have leaves with three leaflets, and bear short fuzzy pods each usually containing two or three beans. These seeds, when ripe, are nearly globular and vary in color from black or brown to green and creamy white. Most modern varieties have golden yellow seeds. They contain about 40 percent protein -- twice as much as ordinary beans -- and 20 percent oil, of which ordinary beans have practically none.

Soybeans do not readily become tender when cooked in water. Orientals, during their long history, have found many other ways of preparing them. In the form of sprouts, soy sauce, paste, soybean cheese and curd they have been an important source of protein in the diet of Chinese and Japanese for centuries. Also, after boiling, the beans are ground with water to produce a "milk", as nutritious as cows' milk, which is delivered regularly in bottles in Chinese cities. Our familiar soy sauce is a brown salty liquid made by fermenting soybeans and rice for periods from 8 months to 5 years. It has a meaty tang. As human food, the soybean can be nearly a complete diet in itself.

In 1804 the soybean was brought to the United States but it remained little more than a botanical curiosity for almost a century. Then it began to be grown as forage for cattle and as green manure for increasing soil fertility. Until World War I little thought was given to the bean itself and its two main products -- soybean oil and soybean meal.

The boom in soybean farming and processing of the beans started in 1922 when the A. E. Staley Manufacturing Company, previously concerned with corn starch, began such operations in Decatur. Soybeans thrive best on the soils of our Corn Belt. In only 30 years, high-yielding varieties together with improved farming and processing methods have doubled both the number of bushels harvested per acre and the yield of oil per bushel. Today, over a hundred processing plants produce half of the vegetable oils used in the nation and two-thirds of the oil meal proteins fed to livestock and poultry. Hundreds of other soybean products now enter into the things we eat or wear or use in our daily lives, and the end is not yet.

The soybean is a meat without bones; a meat that grows in a pod.

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