Andrew Plant, assistant professor of agriculture education for UMaine Cooperative Extension in Presque Isle, Maine recently wrote a summary for farmers who want to incorporate soybeans into rotations.
According to Plant, growers in Northern Maine searching for cropping alternatives to increase net farm income, should consider planting soybeans. He believes soybeans can easily fit into a two- or three-year rotation scheme with or without potatoes (a huge crop in Northern Maine). Growers who have small grain equipment, he said, can easily adopt soybeans without having to purchase any new equipment.
Soybeans perform best in well-drained soils, which are typical of cropland in Aroostook County (Maine's northernmost county). So, they should be a good fit.
Plant cautions growers to pay attention to the herbicides they use, as some he explained can have possible detrimental effects on subsequent crops within the rotation. What a farmer sprays on his soybeans this year might have an ill effect on next year's potatoes or small grains.
Plant took time out to answer a few questions related to his summary.
How did you realize there is an interest in profitable alternative crops? Did farmers approach you for ideas?
I've been trying to instigate the idea, and right now is a teachable moment. I got involved in a project with some colleagues at USDA-ARS and the Economics Department in University of Maine Orono, which we were looking at GIS Spatial mapping of crop rotations and then the economics of those rotations. We derived a number of crop budgets for things that were currently being grown here. The result was essentially a deeper look into what goes on financially at an individual's farm. So, it has allowed us to provide estimates, for example, of "if I change this crop to this crop, I can improve my overall net farm income by $50 per acre."
It's nothing new to the area in terms of searching for a profitable alternative crop to grow in conjunction with potatoes. There is a lot of financial pressure on the potato aspect of the potato-rotation scheme, when a failure happens there it is difficult for farms/industry to recover. Currently, there is increased financial pressure on potato portion of the rotations due to volume and price cuts to local contracts, much to do with trying to compete with the western U.S. in pricing (they have significantly greater yields, and lower costs of processing).
What unexpected hurdles have farmers faced in the area?
There haven't been too many hurdles other than the "growing pains" of getting used to the crop. Probably the biggest hurdle is its harvest. It would be best to have it on smooth flat surface as the pods can set pretty low and can be difficult to get to without the proper harvest equipment (a flex-head combine). Pests have been few, likely due to the fact that it hasn't been grown in large volumes yet (under the radar so to speak). The biggest disease aspect, is likely white mold, which can carry over into and be an occasional detriment to potatoes as well. Weather can limit the types of varieties we can grow successfully up here (they like heat, and can take a long time to mature), so for now we have the early maturing varieties to work with.
What is the market for soybeans?
Most, if not all of what is currently being produced here is going to Canada, either to a small processor in New Brunswick or to a larger processor in Quebec. I believe at each, there are being crushed and extruded for oil. I'm unsure if the oils are being used for food-grade or for bio-fuels.