Farmers tinker with soy
Some breeds prosper in Willamette Valley; high yields seen
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
GERVAIS, Ore. -- Farmer Stan Armstrong says he's hungry for challenges.
He's been sating his appetite recently by growing soybeans in Oregon's Willamette Valley, an area that's traditionally considered unsuitable for the predominantly Midwestern crop.
"I do it for the fun of it," he said.
Even so, Armstrong and other farmers and breeders in the region think that soybean production may turn out to be more than a bizarre pastime.
Oregon State University has now turned its soybean breeding program over to several private parties in the Willamette Valley. They will carry on research previously headed by the university's Malheur Experiment Station in eastern Oregon.
The change was primarily motivated by budget cuts at the station, where professor Clint Shock had been studying soybeans since the early 1990s, said Dan Curry, director of seed services at OSU.
Though private breeders will take over field trials of the soybean lines developed by Shock, OSU will continue to compile the data about yields, disease, flowering and other important characteristics, Curry said.
Soybeans are generally considered better adapted to the warm evenings of the Midwest, so varieties customarily grown in that region have trouble flowering during Oregon's cool nights, he said.
The OSU soybean lines have been selected to overcome that hurdle and other climatic differences between the Midwest and Northwest, Curry said. The hope is that research this year will allow the university to release two official varieties before planting season in 2012.
Armstrong first began experimenting with soybeans several years ago to cut down on feed costs at his dairy, he said. Last year, he planted more than 50 lines from OSU and generated average yields of about 50 to 55 bushels per acre, which was higher than the national average.
The problem is that farmers in the Willamette Valley must attain even greater yields to justify planting soybeans, due to the higher land costs and the added expense of irrigation, Armstrong said. Unlike the Midwest, Oregon doesn't get much summer rain.
In 2011, Armstrong has narrowed his plantings to about 25 soybean lines he believes hold the most promise.
He said farmers are generally skeptical of such a nontraditional crop, but the attraction is that they can sell it to animal feed and food oil companies at prices comparable to those obtained by Midwestern growers.
"There are end markets," Armstrong said.
"We've got a lot to learn," he said.
Terry Plagmann, a farmer near Albany, Ore., said he's also experimenting with soybeans as a potential rotation crop. He tried OSU lines last year, but opted for varieties from North Dakota in 2011.
Soybeans harvested from the 30 acres he's planting this year will be sold to Willamette Biomass Processors, a crushing facility in Rickreall, Ore., Plagmann said. At this point he describes the crop as a novelty.
"We really have no idea where we're going," he said. "I don't know if I'm ahead of the game or just off in space."