The Soybean Is King, Yet Remains Invisible : The Salt For the first time in history, soybeans are about to become America's most widely grown crop. Yet compared to corn or wheat, they remain curiously invisible in American culture.
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The Soybean Is King, Yet Remains Invisible

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The Soybean Is King, Yet Remains Invisible

The Soybean Is King, Yet Remains Invisible

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For more than a century, corn has been the most widely planted crop in the country. It's a symbol of small town America. In the musical "Oklahoma!," the corn is as high as an elephant's eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, WHAT A BEAUTFIUL MORNING")

HUGH JACKMAN: (As Curly) And it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky.

SIEGEL: Well, now government statistics show that king corn has been toppled by another crop that's gotten far less attention. NPR's Dan Charles has the story of soybeans.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Brent Gloy understands the charm of growing corn. He farms in Nebraska, graduated from the University of Nebraska - you know, the Cornhusker.

BRENT GLOY: We're probably predisposed to corn, but the current prices will make (laughter) you lose those predispositions pretty quickly.

CHARLES: And Gloy understands prices even better. He's also an agricultural economist, a visiting professor at Purdue. Farmers are switching to soybeans, he says, because it's more profitable. Prices are high because buyers in China and other foreign countries want more and more of those beans to feed their pigs and their chickens.

GLOY: Just a lot of demand coming out of Southeast Asia.

CHARLES: According to USDA statistics, American farmers harvested more acres of soybeans this year than any other crop for the first time in history - 83 million acres. If current conditions hold, soybeans soon will cover more than 90 million acres. But they still are not getting the kind of honor and respect that corn does. There's no college football team called the soybean threshers.

And Ines Prodohl, a historian at the University of Munich in Germany, has been thinking about the reasons why. She's writing a history of soybeans, and she ran into what she calls our societal indifference toward this crop when she came to the United States years ago and started searching for pictures in the Library of Congress.

INES PRODOHL: And I was looking for images like farmers being proud of their soybeans or anything like that.

CHARLES: She could only come up with about 15 or 20 soybean images. For other crops, there were thousands.

PRODOHL: There was a ton of images about cotton or corn or wheat, and there was almost nothing about soybeans.

CHARLES: Maybe it's just that soybeans don't look impressive. They're modest bushes, grow about as tall as your hips maybe, with pods full of little, tan beans hard as marbles - nothing like those tall stalks of corn with tassels on top and long ears of yellow grain. But Prodohl says there are historical reasons, too. Soybeans were brought to the U.S. pretty recently in the 1920s by scientists who promoted them not as food but as alternative crops that would replenish soil that had been depleted by constantly growing corn and wheat.

PRODOHL: They never talked about soybeans as a foodstuff - never ever. That just didn't happen.

CHARLES: Today soybeans are an important food, but they're still invisible. They flow into giant factories that crush them into oil and meal. They end up in processed food or industrial products, and mostly they go to feed animals. And that's how most Americans experience the country's new No. 1 crop - as a pork chop or that other American cultural icon, the Chicken McNugget. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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