Soybeans have become one of the most important cash crops in post-World War II Tennessee, ranking as the third highest cash crop in the state in 1999. The first record of soybeans in the United States dates to 1804, but the plant was not produced in large amounts until after 1890. During the 1920s the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its extension agent program publicized the use of soybeans and their commercial production. Another boom in the plant’s production came in the 1940s, but the current widespread production of the legume can be attributed to developments of the 1960s, when soybeans became known as a double-crop plant species that could be grown in tandem with small grains, primarily wheat, to produce two crops per year from the same field. In addition, soybeans proved adaptable to the no-till production movement in agriculture. New uses for soybeans as food products spurred demand for the crop and soybean meal began to be used in the manufacture of many chemical products, from paints to fire-extinguisher fluid. Finally, soybeans brought good prices–as high as thirteen dollars per bushel. Thus, farmers began to convert former pastures and hay crops to soybean fields. The boom of soybean production, however, had its downside as soil erosion increased in the 1960s and the 1970s.
West Tennessee farmers quickly adapted to the soybean revolution and over the last generation soybeans replaced cotton on many farms in the region. Of the 70 million acres planted in soybeans across the country, one million of those acres are in Tennessee, mostly in West Tennessee. According to figures from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Gibson, Dyer, Weakley, and Obion Counties were the state’s leading producers in 1995, accounting for more than 12.3 million bushels of soybeans.
Yields in soybean production have made outstanding increases in the last few years due to the development of new varieties and biotechnology. Yields in the 1960s typically were 20-30 bushels per acre; now that same amount of land sometimes yields 60 bushels. The soybean, “the wonder food plant” of the twentieth century, promises continued success in the next century in Tennessee.