“What is a soybean?”
It’s amazing how a simple question, asked in four short words, can leave you speechless.
I was giving a presentation at a school, and a student asked me the question after I mentioned that Illinois grows more corn, soybeans, and pumpkins than any other state. Illinois and Iowa fight for the #1 spot each year, and in 2022, Illinois was the corn and soybean-growing champion.
I thought the follow-up question would be, “What state is #2?,” not what a soybean was.
After blinking for a few seconds and feeling shellshocked, I cleared my throat and began trying to explain what the crop was: a seed of the soybean plant, which is in the same classification family (Fabaceae) as beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts. Soybeans have a variety of uses, including vegetable oil, bioplastics, biodiesel fuel, animal feed, and wax for candles and crayons.
Soybeans are popular in Asian cuisine and are used to make tofu, edamame, miso soup, and soy sauce. According to the USDA, China is the world’s largest soybean importer. During the 2022 fiscal year, soybeans accounted for nearly half of U.S. agricultural exports to China at a record $16.4 billion.
Although I’ve been teaching for years, I never had someone ask me what a soybean was before. I grew up surrounded by fields of soybeans. This year, the three farms that corner my house all grew soybeans. Being asked what a soybean is was similar to being asked, “What is grass?” or “What is an oak tree?”
But for a young student that has only lived in the city, surrounded by pavement, asphalt, and skyscrapers, a soybean is something they never experienced before, something they knew nothing about. They never saw a 5,000-acre field of soybeans, much less a single soybean, which is round and about the size of a pencil’s pink eraser.
In early October, members of the Cook County Farm Bureau’s Young Leaders had a Zoom virtual meeting to talk to Young Leaders from Wake County, North Carolina. During the meeting, we talked about agriculture in our states and the documentary "Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman", based on the book by Miriam Horn, which was our Farm Bureau’s book club read this past spring.
Within the first few minutes of our meeting, it was easy to tell that there were vast differences between the two groups’ accents and our agriculture, including talk of what crops we grow the most of – North Carolina grows a lot of tobacco, sweet potatoes, and cotton, and you should now know Illinois’ top three crops!
However, something the Young Leaders from both states had in common is our love and appreciation of agriculture. We both have a common goal of bringing ag education and knowledge to the next generation. We both discussed the need for sustainability, for soil and water conservation and health, and making the earth and methods of agriculture better.
The meeting left me inspired and made me realize we’re not alone. Although we grow different crops, we have different twangs to our voices, and we are more than 800 miles away, we are standing side by side in the same mission: agriculture is our future.
So the next time a student asks me, “What is a soybean?,” I won’t blink or hesitate. I’ll be ready to teach them about one of Illinois’ top commodities and part of what makes agriculture and agricultural education so special.
My favorite reaction to teaching someone something is, “Oh, wow! I never knew that!” I think we all have “soybeans” we don’t know about. It only takes a little bit of learning to open a whole new door of knowledge – or an entire soybean field.
For more information about soybeans, read Illinois Farm Bureau’s Soybean Ag Mag: www.bit.ly/AgMagSoybean.
“Soybeans at Sunrise” taken Sept. 30 by Katrina