What’s the most important cash crop in America?

Over the years, the answer to that question has changed. It’s possible to think in terms of epochs, with the Age of Cotton giving way to the Age of Wheat. Then King Corn ascended to the throne, where he currently reigns.

But King Corn’s century-long reign may soon draw to an end. Long live the coming king: soybeans.

To be sure, we’re a few years out from this eclipse of corn. Farmers are still planting more corn than soybeans, corn still makes more, and still looms large.

Nonetheless, changes are in the offing. In 2017, for the first time in history, farmers harvested more soybeans than corn. Trends indicate plantings of this humble bean will continue to increase at a more rapid rate than corn, gradually taking over the number one spot in American crop values.

For their growing significance (pun fully intended!), it’s surprising soybeans have been as invisible as they have in America’s cultural imagination.

Part of that invisibility has to do with the history, the use, and the primary end-markets of soybeans. Each of these factors helps explain some of its significance for the future as well as its historical obscurity. 

Soybeans were a Chinese import, introduced to American farmers as a soil conditioner rather than a cash crop. In the 1920s, ag scientists were becoming concerned about intensive cultivation of cash crops like corn and wheat depleting the soil of core nutrients, and especially nitrogen. (For the record, they were exactly right; only a decade later, the apocalyptic Dust Bowl droughts helped set off the Great Depression).

It wasn’t until years later that farmers began seeing them as a crop in their own right. And even then, the modest stalks dangling soybean pods haven’t imprinted themselves on our collective consciousness the way amber waves of wheat or tall stalks of corn have.

Another dimension of the strange silence about King Soybean has been its end uses. Aside from those of us who use large amounts of soy sauce or eat edamame, we don’t see the soybean in our everyday consumer products. 

That’s not to say soybeans aren’t there. We’re much more likely to encounter it invisibly, as the powdered flour used in processed foods, or as part of the feed that animals we eat consumed. It remains hidden in plain sight.

Another reason we don’t often acknowledge the soybean is that we often aren’t the primary consumers of soybeans. Led by China, Asian countries have become increasingly reliant on soybeans grown here in the United States. Given overseas demand coming from markets numbering in the billions of consumers, much of our soybean produce doesn’t stay here long.

That export-led growth marks soybeans as a product of our globalized times, embodying all its strengths and weaknesses. Introduced from abroad as a soil conditioner, it’s become a sustainable crop that nonetheless boasts a host of industrial uses.

Yet it’s also occupied the news cycle recently for other reasons. Use of dicamba as a new pesticide devastated some crop fields where farmers didn’t plant dicamba-resistant seeds. And new tariffs in an escalating trade war with China have hit soybean farmers, who depend on this export market, hard.

King Soybean’s reign, then, will look different than his predecessors. He’ll lack the visibility of his forebears. As a king in an interconnected world, he’s more prone to ecological and economic disturbances.

For all the good and bad that his reign may bring, it’s a harbinger of days to come. Long live King Soybean.