Home News Illinois soybean farmers look to capitalize on green future

Illinois soybean farmers look to capitalize on green future

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Steve Pitstick has been working the fields on his family’s soybean farm his entire life. That’s long enough to have seen considerable changes in the business.

Pitstick, 65, remembers tending to the crop with a tractor and using a radio to check for weather updates. Today, he plants using a computer-guided machine, and genetically engineered seeds make it possible for Pitstick and other farmers to produce more.

Although the history of his family’s Elburn-area farm goes back generations, Pitstick is focused fully on the future as the need for soy products grows. And he’s not the only one.

Pitstick is one of some 43,000 soybean farmers represented by the Illinois Soybean Association, which is leading an effort to spur the development of soy-based products that are increasingly used as a cleaner and more sustainable replacement for petroleum.

Launched by the association in March, the Soy Innovation Center is intended to serve as a virtual resource for innovators around the globe looking to test out new soy products and bring them to market.

Todd Main, director of marketing development for the association, said the innovation center will not only commercialize new uses of soy, but also create jobs in Illinois.

“Because about 60% of Illinois soybeans go overseas, we have a broader focus than a lot of other states because we have to have a good relationship with buyers all over the world,” Main said.

Products using soy in place of petroleum have proven popular as interest in clean energy climbs. Clean energy and transportation investment in the U.S. surged by nearly 40% in 2023 to $239 billion, according to independent research firm Rhodium Group.

Some examples of soy-based innovations are products that can be used in manufacturing or heavy industry under high pressure and temperature, Main said. A few common uses for soy at smaller scales include foam used to put out fires and printer ink.

“There are hundreds of products that soybean is used in, and the variety of products has grown substantially in the last 10 years,” Main said.

While innovation is limitless, the center is looking for ideas and investments that can scale quickly and use soy in place of petroleum in big ways to have a smaller environmental footprint. Funding available for projects through the innovation center comes from the soy checkoff program, which is made up of a portion Illinois farmers’ sales.

Several projects are under consideration, and the innovation center is currently funding the development of a soy-based lubricant that can be used on farming equipment.

Ohio-based Airable Research Lab, which is working with Illinois and other top soy-producing states to develop new uses for soybeans, is testing the lubricant. The goal is to get a certificate of quality for the lubricant over the summer, Main said, after the testing phase wraps up.

Dylan Karis, lead chemist at Airable, said that in addition to the sustainability aspect, soy-based solutions can also increase workplace safety by reducing the toxicity that workers in manufacturing and processing settings are exposed to.

He added that being able to “constantly innovate” is a dream job.

“What gets us excited is continuously working to get a product super high in bio or soy content, like over 90% is huge,” Karis said. “That’s bigger for us and more important for the bigger picture.”

Airable was also involved in developing Roof Maxx, a soy-based product that’s used to rejuvenate dry, brittle asphalt roofing shingles. The lab continues to help the company, which is also based in Ohio, improve the formulation.

“What we have is an environmentally-friendly, bio-based product using soy,” said Scott James Papendorf, the Orland Park dealer for Roof Maxx.

The idea behind the product is to save people from having to completely replace their roof. “We’re very proud of being able to take a roof and give it another lifetime,” Papendorf said. “That’s one less roof in the landfills, too.”

Illinois produces about 670 million bushels of soybeans each year, making it the largest producer in the U.S. But soybeans are booming beyond Illinois, too. According to the USDA, planted soybean acreage increased by 18% from 2002 to 2022 in the U.S. Yields have also increased by 30%.

Soybeans can be put in the ground up until about mid-June, but Pitstick had already completed his planting for the season by mid-May. The earlier the better, he says, as the crop will yield more if it has more time to mature.

Pitstick has silos on his property which he uses to store his crop as it comes off the fields during harvest season, which starts in mid-September and runs for about six weeks.

The grain harvested from Pitstick’s farm — typically 700 semitruck loads of both soybean and corn — is stored and then parceled out over the next year. Much of Pitstick’s harvest is exported, so his soybeans are delivered via the Illinois River to New Orleans and then put on a ship for any number of final destinations from Mexico to China.

Grain that is not immediately exported will go to a crush facility, which is a place where the soybean is crushed into soybean oil and high-protein meal. A majority of soybeans that are crushed, about 80%, become the meal that predominantly goes toward livestock feed, while the oil is used as commercial vegetable oil or biodiesel.

Farmers are raising more and more soybeans every year — about 10,000 bushels each year — thanks to advancements in technology. The seed is better, he said, having gone through genetic engineering. More than 93% of soybean fields in major U.S. regions were using genetically engineered seed by 2006, according to the USDA.

With more product to move, the Illinois Soybean Association is “always looking for the next new market,” Pitstick said.

“The need for our product is also growing as we are becoming more environmentally conscious,” Pitstick said. “And farms themselves are also transitioning from petroleum-based products to renewable ones that are more sustainable.”

Farmers first entered the renewable resources discourse some 30 years ago and have since grown in influence, Pitstick said, and he is trying to keep the conversation going for future generations. The innovation center is one such platform.

“There’s a lot of smart people out there that know a whole bunch about soybeans and would love to make the world better,” he said. “They want to take something and make it into another thing. We just have to find those people.”



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