How Are Soybean Production and Sustainability Aligned in South Dakota?

April 27, 2023

The entire agricultural industry has faced increased pressure in recent years to farm in sustainable ways that benefit the earth and its natural resources — all while producing more against tight margins. Fortunately, soybean producers in South Dakota are positioned perfectly to address some of these mounting challenges proactively.

Climate-friendly Practices in Soybean Production

Soybean production has made substantial gains in terms of sustainability over the past four decades. As reported in the 2021 U.S. Soy Sustainability Overview, American soybean farmers improved their per bushel greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 43 percent since 1980. During this timeframe, they also increased production by 130 percent, using roughly the same amount of land while doubling down on water and energy use.

Checkoff-funded research into soil management practices, precision technology and more has helped pave the way for these improved efficiencies in soybean production. That, in turn, has dramatically benefitted producers and bolstered demand for sustainably-grown U.S. soybeans on the international market.

Jamie Johnson runs a no-till row crop operation and raises Angus beef cattle with her husband, Brian, outside of Frankfort, South Dakota. In addition to no-till farming, the Johnsons utilize cover crops and grazing practices in their soil management strategy. “We see so much value on our operation from doing conservation practices,” says Johnson, who represents District 7 on the South Dakota Soybean Association Board of Directors.

Johnson explains that soybeans fit into various rotation lineups and work well with cover crops to lay a solid foundation for improved soil management practices. They also work with bacteria to fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing farmers’ dependency on commercial N fertilizer.

When talking to other farmers about soil health and its importance to sustainable production, she likens the earth to the human body. “You don't want to eat the same thing over and over again,” says Johnson. “And the same thing with your soil, you know, having that diverse rotation and different things growing in your soil makes it healthier.”

Sustainability Through Soy-based Innovation

The soybean sustainability narrative continues far beyond harvest. A rapidly growing portfolio of soy-based products — from biofuels like biodiesel, renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to road sealants to rubber tires and shoe soles — have taken center stage in the ongoing efforts to reduce our societal dependence on fossil fuels.

“Anything ‘green’ is being looked at as the future,” says Jason Frerichs, who farms in the northeast corner of the state near Wilmot, South Dakota. A former state legislator, Frerichs now serves as District 8 Director and Chairman for the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council. In his mind, the environmental benefits presented by soy-based products are and will continue to be a boon to South Dakota soybean farmers. “There’s so much untapped potential, especially as we see the shift away from petroleum,” he says.

South Dakota soybean farmers have helped accelerate innovation through their checkoff, funding research and promotion efforts for several products hitting the market in recent years. In addition, the POET Bioproducts Institute — in collaboration with South Dakota State University and South Dakota School of Mines — is scheduled to open this year thanks in part to checkoff-funded support.

“We all need to come together (to explore new uses for soybeans), and that's what we see with the POET Bioproducts Institute,” says Frerichs. “(It) will hopefully be the go-to place to make sure that new uses for soybean products are discovered. But it doesn't just stay there — they can then use their shop space to partner with private industry to make sure those products get out to the consumer market.”

Frerichs says this outcome will further reinforce soybean producers’ role in a more sustainable future. “We want to make sure that soybean farmers are able to be successful, make money out there, and obviously be sustainable on the land and take pride in those soybeans that we raise,” he says.

Learn More About Sustainability and South Dakota Soybean

For soybean farmers, sustainable practices aren’t just a passing trend. In many cases, they have been in place for generations and will continue to be at the forefront as we work to advance our industry while preserving the earth and its natural resources. You can learn more about South Dakota Soybean’s efforts to support farmers in their continued pursuit of sustainable practices and product innovation on our website or by contacting your local district director.