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Published April 02, 2010, 12:00 AM

Specialty growers wanted

Demand high for non-GMO bean varieties
As planting season approaches, one sector of the soybean industry is looking for a few good growers to help meet the demand of an expanding market.

As planting season approaches, one sector of the soybean industry is looking for a few good growers to help meet the demand of an expanding market.

Those involved with food-grade, non-genetically modified organism (non-GMO) soybeans say more farmers are needed to keep up with demand, both domestically and in foreign countries such as Japan and the European Union.

“They can’t find enough growers to grow these,” said Ted Helms, a soybean breeder and genetics professor at North Dakota State University. “They could sell much more than they produce, but they need farmers that are willing to contract for them. That’s the limiting factor.”

Helms has developed a number of specialty food-grade soybean varieties, including ProSoy, a variety developed for the tofu market, and Nornatto, bred for making natto, a traditional Japanese dish of fermented soybeans.

He’s working with grant funding from the North Dakota Soybean Council to improve pest and disease resistance, yield and standability of food-grade soybeans through natural breeding.

Four new tofu types were put out for bids in February, and a new natto variety could be coming out in January, Helms said.

“The bottom line is to help these small companies around here, to help economic development and to help those growers,” he said.

A challenge for locals who raise and sell the soybeans is that demand sometimes exceeds supply, said Jennifer Tesch, marketing sales director for Fargo’s SK Food International, a supplier of identity-preserved organic soybeans.

While growers receive a premium price for the soybeans, a lot of extra work goes into growing and processing them, Tesch said.

Growers must thoroughly clean out augers, bins and machinery to avoid cross-contamination, and they need specialized harvesting and handling equipment, especially for the natto and sprout markets, where buyers require a low percentage of cracked skins, Tesch said.

“The farmer can’t just go in at 100 mph and take the beans off when it’s raining, so to speak,” she said.

In 2007, a group of Red River Valley businesses formed the Northern Food Grade Soybean Association to promote traceable, food-grade soybeans from the region on a global level.

The association has 10 members, from Casselton, Fargo, Grand Forks, Hillsboro and Jamestown in North Dakota, and Breckenridge, Moorhead and Burnsville in Minnesota.

Tesch said the Red River Valley is well-suited for growing and storing food-grade soybeans because the cool climate limits pressure from soybean diseases and insects.

Helms said that while non-GMO, food-grade soybeans represent a small sector of the industry compared to GMO soybeans, he anticipates more growers will use them as GMO seed becomes more costly and growers recognize the economic value.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528