Farmer Jacob Hartz had a problem many farmers in Arkansas faced in the 1920s. Rice had been introduced in the state, and it depleted nutrients in the soil. Extension agents tried to get farmers to plant a commonly grown crop in the Midwest and Asia, soybeans to help with this issue.
Hartz, the son of German immigrants, decided to plant soybeans on his Arkansas County farm in 1926 and turn them into “green manure” or till them back into the soil to replenish its nutrients. He acquired twenty bushels of Laredo soybeans and planted them.
Little did he know he would be one of the forefathers of the most lucrative crop in the state’s history. Less than a century later, farmers planted 3.5 million soybean acres in 2017, by far the most farmed crop in the state. It’s the 10th largest soybean producing state in the country. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proclaimed November to be Arkansas Soybean Month, according to the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board, (ASPB).
“My grandfather recognized the impact rice had on the soil, and he realized soybeans would be a good crop to put nutrients back in the soil,” ASPB member Doug Hartz told Talk Business & Politics. “He used some of his soybeans to make hay. Soybeans make excellent hay for livestock.”
The impact soybeans have had on the Natural State cannot be overestimated. In 2016, 3.1 million acres were harvested in 41 of Arkansas’ 75 counties. The 145.7 million bushels produced has a value of $1.4 billion, almost 20% of the state’s agricultural sector. Farmers had more soybean acres than rice, corn, sorghum, and wheat combined, according to ASPB.
Soybeans account for more than 90% of all U.S. oil seed production, and is the second most grown crop in the U.S. trailing only corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Soybeans are used in livestock feed and in other consumer products.
The U.S. is the leading soybean grower and exporter in the world, but there have been issues in the export markets in 2017. China imports almost 3 billion bushels of soybeans each year, according to USDA. China consumes the lion’s share of the U.S. soybean export market, but dismissal of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement by President Donald Trump, a potential trade war with Mexico, and changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) could cut markets at a time when market growth would help Arkansas farmers. Mexico alone buys more than $1.4 billion in U.S. soybeans last year.
Cotton was the dominant crop in Arkansas when Hartz planted his first soybean crop. As the 1930s unfolded, farmers hit with floods, droughts, the Great Depression and other calamities experimented with other crops to improve profit margins. By 1940 farmers had planted 176,000 soybean acres annually, and when World War II erupted a year later, the crop continued its steady progression to becoming the most important crop in Arkansas. Soybean oil became more popular during the war when other vegetable oil sources from the Asia and the Pacific were shutdown as the war raged.
During the 1960s the bean became increasingly popular because it took less herbicides and pesticides than corn, rice or other crops. Many believed the high-protein plant had a lesser impact on the environment and wildlife in the region. Mechanization during this time helped curb labor shortages and improve soybean yields.
Doug Hartz, who works as a farm manager now, said his family operated a seed company until 1983 when it sold to Monsanto. His family still operates farms near Dewitt, and in Prairie and Lonoke counties.
How proud is Doug Hartz of his heritage in the Arkansas agriculture industry?
“Our family has been involved in the Ag industry for a really long time,” he said.