Soybean farmers look beyond current strife to innovative future

Nathan Eckel addresses Kiwanis

By DAVID DUPONT

BG Independent News

These are trying times for soybean farmers. A trade dispute between the United States and China has cut out their largest trading partner.

Government help has mitigated the loss, but the damage is real.

Local farmer Nathan Eckel, though, was not obsessing on present concerns when he addressed the Bowling Green Kiwanis Club Thursday. An active member of the Ohio Soybean Council, he was eager to talk about the future. 

The council, paid for by fees assessed to the farmers, is engaged in making sure farmers like Eckel can keep their operations in business.  Eckel is a fifth generation farmer — Eckel Junction Road was named for the family’s original plot.

He also raises other commodity crops and has a 800-head livestock operation, on the 2,000 acres he farms.

The future, he told club members, includes funding research into new ways to use soybean. The plant now is used in biodiesel, human food, and animal feed.

Eckel, who as a trustee of the council chairs its research committee, said the council is active in funding corporate and academic research. 

That research includes replacing petroleum-based oils with sustainable and biodegradable soy oil products. A soy-based floor coating has just come to market, he said.

Another project is the development of soy fish meal for fish farms in India. 

The research committee sends out calls for proposals, and then writes grants for the most promising projects. “We expect a return on the investment we make,”  Eckel said.

The council plugs in money at the very early stages and keeps providing equity until the product goes to market. Then, he said, “we start getting our royalties.”

One use of those royalties is funding scholarships through the Ohio Soybean Association, a policy body separately funded by members.  Last year the association awarded $45,000 in scholarships. 

Those scholars may not end up growing soybeans, but may instead do research or work in some other agriculture-related occupation.

The council is also active in programs to teach young people about agriculture. Through Grow Next Gen, Eckel has conducted virtual farm tours with 625 students in 25 classrooms around the state.  “It’s more than putting a seed in the ground, harvesting and taking it to the elevator.”

He uses precision data and GPS as well, all the technology the kids are familiar with. 

The council also reaches out to find new markets for the products. Those could include developing countries that are just starting to raise livestock.

The importance of seeking new markets has been brought home by the current trade dispute between the United States and China. After the U.S. hiked tariffs on Chinese goods, the Chinese have retaliated by reducing the quantity of American soybeans they import.

China represented 60 percent of the state’s soybean imports. This year that’s down to 10 percent.

About a third of the Ohio’s 250 million bushel crop is exported,  Kirk Merritt, executive director of the council and the association, said.

Soybeans are big business. It’s the state’s top crop and top export. The plant generates $2.5 billion with an economic impact of $5.3 billion. Ohio’s 25,000 soybean farmers cultivate 5 million acres.

The tariffs have made those farmers’ lives “more challenging,” Merritt said. “The retaliatory tariffs have had a significant impact. … It’s more difficult to turn a profit in farming today.”  

Eckel said: “For me as a farmer, it has made an impact directly on my farm. The government’s trying to make some changes through the aid package, and it’s helped. It hasn’t made us quite whole. We hope both sides can come to an agreement soon.”

“The payments are helpful and very much appreciated,” Merritt said.  “The farmers I know would much refer to compete in the marketplace.”

And they’d like China to be part of that. “There’s recognition that there are issues that need to be addressed in the trading relationship with China,” Merritt said. “We just think it’s unfortunate ag got caught in the middle of it. We’ve done strong business with China for many years, so we’d like to have that market back.”

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