Georgia soybean growers have never -- well, hardly ever -- had it so good.
"This is the best soybean situation we've seen in better than 10 years," said Dr. John Woodruff, an agronomist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. "It's almost too good to believe."
This year, world stocks of soybeans are at 140 million bushels -- only a 30-day supply and the lowest since 1973. In a more normal year, stocks would be at more than 250 million bushels. Those low stocks have suppliers vying for beans and driving up prices.
U.S. farmers have had near-record crops during each of the past three years. But an ever-increasing demand nearly uses up each crop before the next one comes in.
"We've essentially bought and used up last year's soybean crop," Woodruff said.
Harvest is under way in South America. But Woodruff expects it to be used before the 1997 U.S. crop matures. U.S. farmers raise the world's largest soybean crop at 2.4 billion bushels. Georgia grows 2.5 percent to 3 percent of the nation's crop.
Current prices for new-crop soybeans range from $7.30 to $7.40 per bushel, well over the 10-year average of $6.25.
Woodruff expects Georgia farmers to plant 500,000 acres of soybeans this year. At last year's average yield of 27 bushels per acre, they could see their crop valued at almost $100 million. That's a 50 percent increase over the 1996 crop value of $66 million.
To realize that value, farmers must manage their crop carefully. That includes planting a suitable, high-yielding variety, fertilizing right, controlling weeds and insects, harvesting at the best time and marketing carefully.
New herbicide-tolerant varieties can help farmers control weeds. Recent research in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences also shows that applying boron and Dimilin, a pesticide, at the right time can control velvet bean caterpillars while boosting yields.
Farmers will do well, too, to use forward pricing to lock in current high prices.
"The crop value is at its lowest during harvest," Woodruff said. He tells farmers to contract up to one-fourth of their crop during the early season, and another one-fourth in midsummer if they feel their crop is off to a good start.
Worldwide, soybean demand is rising nearly constantly. Livestock farmers and dieticians prize soybeans for their high-quality protein. That protein has a near complete balance of the six essential amino acids humans and animals need in a healthy diet.
People in poorer countries can use whole soybeans as their main protein source. The beans are crushed for oil, too. More industrialized countries use the meal remaining after crushing for livestock feed.
The average person encounters soybeans 10 to 15 times every day, Woodruff said. It's in many baked and fried snack foods. It's even in cosmetics and inks.
Humans directly use only 15 percent to 20 percent of the world soybean crop. "Really, 80 to 85 percent of consumption is in livestock feed -- for beef cattle, poultry and swine," Woodruff said.
The 1996 Freedom to Farm bill has crops competing for acres based on their market prices. "So as the demand for soybeans carries up their price, it's carrying the price of corn, cotton and other crops up with it," Woodruff said. "It's a win-win situation for everyone."