Non-GMO varieties suitable for export, rotation, biofuel, dairy feed

By RENÉ FEATHERSTONE

For the Capital Press

BASIN CITY, Wash. -- The 300-plus crops the Columbia Basin boasts don't seem enough for irrigation project farmers. To wit, the soybean as a new crop to Franklin County was received with "plenty of interest" by local growers, said Kent Mackay, partner-owner of Eppich Grain in Basin City.

"We always keep an eye out for new opportunities, and there seems to be a need for a good rotational crop," Mackay said.

"Right now we deal in theory," he said, noting that it's the first year the company has contracted soybean acres. "We'll be able to draw conclusions about best practices at the end of the growing season."

Soybean farming isn't completely new to Eastern Washington. It has been tried, but only sporadically, Mackay said. "What's different this time is that we've found a dependable market for non-GMO soybeans. It's a valid market -- if we get the yields."

Eppich Grain deals primarily in wheat, corn and buckwheat. One of the company's customers wondered why soybeans weren't part of their portfolio, Mackay said. "He looked around and saw how well the corn is growing. 'Why aren't you growing soybeans?' he asked."

With the Pacific Rim as a destination, the non-GMO aspect of Basin City soybeans ranks important. In the Midwest, where soybeans are major production but 90 percent GMO, GMO contamination is almost unavoidable, Mackay said. Conversely, no commercial GMO soybean acres are anywhere near Basin City, so the company's customers are assured of the non-GMO status of the crops.

Mackay said he is appreciative of the farmers who signed their first soybean contracts. "We made sure that they signed on for small enough acreage, so they don't jeopardize their livelihood. For us this makes it more complicated -- it's easier to have circles than to manage small fields -- but the farmers are taking a risk here. If this goes, my nucleus of guys will be the ones who'll get the first shot at any new contracts."

Rotational advantages of soybeans include excess nitrogen left in the soil, he said. "There should be 40 to 80 units of N per acre for the following crop."

Also, soybean production is "less involved" than some of the other new crops area growers are trying out, Mackay said. "Soybeans are combined standing."

In choosing soybean type, the growers benefited from soybean research conducted at Columbia Basin College-Pasco by Tim Woodward, dean of agriculture research and development. Woodward said that in three years of tests, researchers found the "0.8" to "2.1" maturity group of soybean cultivars best for the area. "Maturity groups are ranked from '00' -- that's Canadian varieties -- all the way to '10' -- those are tropical varieties."

Woodward's soybean research was prompted by the biofuel push of the Washington state government. "They want our growers to produce more feedstock (for biofuels). We looked at sunflower and safflower, but they don't produce enough yield under irrigated conditions. In this area, soybeans can produce up to 80 bushels per acre. I'm thinking that 80 bushels per acre at $10 a bushel is a pretty good return. Now it's a matter of proving to growers that you can grow soybeans here."

With 18 percent oil content, soybeans fetch most profits as meal that sells to dairies after crushing. "The oil for biodiesel is byproduct."

Woodward's soybean research looks exclusively at GMO varieties, of which about 1,000 acres are raised commercially this year near Walla Walla, said Kevin Sander, account manager for Monsanto. "Northwest Grain Growers is shipping the crop to Portland. From there it goes overseas."

Sander said the "dilemma" of raising non-GMO soybeans is the higher cost of weed control. "With GMO beans you give it one or two shots of Round-up; for conventional beans the weed-control costs are substantial. We don't sell any conventional beans anymore."

Still, Sander said, there will always be a "niche market" for non-GMO soybeans.

Woodward has been out to the Basin City soybean acres. "Their fields look good, except one," he said.

Kent Mackay related that weed control had indeed been a challenge. "But we've solved that. We're hoping to maintain non-GMO status here."

At this point Mackay and his farmers look to finish out the season successfully. "The fields are blooming and setting pods like they're supposed to," he said. "The last two remaining possible hurdles are heat stress and frost."

    

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