Soybeans…the second leading crop grown by Peoria-area farmers. In 2009, farmers in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties harvested nearly 15 million bushels on approximately 300,000 acres. In 2010, the yield will be even higher, as we had near-ideal conditions for growing this legume plant.

Where did soybeans originate and how did they become so valuable? The soybean plant is actually a native of China. Research suggests that its domestication began around 1100 B.C. Soybean seed was first introduced in North America in 1765 by Samuel Bowen, and at the time, was planted in a British colony we now know as the state of Georgia. Bowen referred to the plant as “Chinese vetch” instead of soybeans. The use of the word “soybean” was introduced by Dr. James Mease in 1804 when he began referring in his literature to the bean from which soy sauce was produced. Soy sauce was quite popular in Europe at the time, and Bowen actually received a patent for this sauce made from soybeans.

The brilliant mind of Benjamin Franklin also had a say in expanding the popularity of the soybean. In 1770, while serving in Europe as the U.S. ambassador to France, he sent some soybeans across the Atlantic to a friend in the colonies to plant in his garden.

In 1850, a crew member of a Japanese fishing boat was rescued in the Pacific Ocean by farmers from Illinois. As a show of his sincere gratification, he presented a gift of soybeans to these farmers, and in 1851, they came home to be planted in Illinois.

During the Civil War, soldiers used soybeans as coffee berries to brew coffee when real coffee became scarce. By the 1870s and 1880s, a significant number of U.S. farmers began growing soybeans as forage for cattle. These plants flourished in the hot, humid summer weather characteristic of the Carolinas.

How were soybeans first used in Peoria County? To find out the answer, I had to call one of the elders in the Peoria farm community. John Gilles, who is now 93 years of age, refreshed his memory to the time when he was 18 to 20 years old. On their farm in rural Kickapoo, they first grew the crop as forage for their cattle, but not without a little trial and error. Initially, the soybean plants were cut and immediately put in the barn for storage. Green plants piled on top of green plants, creating heat…and lots of it. He recalls his father putting his hand in a pile of green soybean plants—he was unable to withstand the heat. After that, the plants were allowed to dry outside before bringing them into the barn.

Albert Rosenbohm, now 94 years of age, recalls first using soybean plants as a forage for livestock when he was around 14. The farm was located at the intersection of Cameron Lane and Middle Road in rural Bartonville, near the Peoria International Airport. Rosenbohm recalls using horses to cut and rake the soybean plants and then letting them dry for a couple of weeks before putting them in large piles outside. He indicated the big stacks of soybeans would shed the rainfall, which slowed spoilage. They made a good feed, as the cattle would consume the entire soybean plant—leaves, stems, pods and all.

Today, just the soybean seed is used. The use of soybean seeds really took off after a two-year odyssey to China by soybean pioneer William J. Morse in 1929. During his adventure, Morse gathered more than 10,000 soybean varieties for U.S. researchers to study. A few of these varieties laid the foundation for the rapid ascension of soybean seed production, and the U.S. became a world leader in the production of the legume crop.

Some refer to the soybean as the “miracle crop.” Its versatility has been expanding since the early 20th century, when Henry Ford began using soybeans to produce automobiles. History reveals that Mr. Ford was using one bushel of soybeans (60 pounds) for every car manufactured. Ford owned a large research laboratory, and one day, he dumped a bag of soybeans on the floor in front of his scientists and said, “You guys are supposed to be smart. You ought to be able to do something with them.” After some diligent research, the scientists made a strong soybean-based plastic for gearshift knobs, horn buttons, window frames, accelerator pedals and ignition coil casings. They also fashioned the exterior of an automobile from soy plastic. Ford demonstrated just how tough the soy plastic was by publicly swinging an axe to the exterior of the car.

All of this history brings us to the current use of soybeans. Most of the seeds are crushed and used as a feed for pigs, poultry and fish. If you look on the ingredients of items at your local grocery store, you will find that many products contain a soy ingredient. In recent years, soybeans have been used to produce a clean-burning “biofuel.” In fact, CityLink, the Peoria metro transportation system, is using a 20-percent blend of biodiesel in its fleet of 58 buses and 21 paratransit vehicles. Look for the soybean wrap around one of the CityLink buses. It illustrates a soybean field that’s always green, and the sky is sunny. Along with the rest of the CityLink buses, you will be able to breathe easier with the reduction in black smoke billowing out of the tail pipe.

The soybean...it’s had a storied history with many chapters still to be written. iBi