Jenkins' Favorite Story of 2022
Digging into Soybean Color Issue Gets to the Heart of a Commodity
The turn to winter traditionally has us thinking back over the year that was. Here in the DTN/Progressive Farmer newsroom, we're also prone to look back on the accomplishments, the challenges, and the things that didn't turn out as planned. In that vein, we again asked our reporters and editors to look back at some of their favorite stories from 2022. The pieces range from hard-hitting investigative journalism, to heart-tugging stories of loss, to the fun discoveries that can be found on farmsteads and small towns. We hope you enjoy our writers' favorites, with today's story by Jason Jenkins.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (DTN) -- Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it's the lifeblood of a journalist. At its core, this job is all about being curious and asking questions. Sometimes, those questions provide the answers that tell the whole story for readers. Other times, they only lead to more questions.
That's where I found myself back in September. Brand new to the DTN/Progressive Farmer team, I hadn't yet filed my first story when my colleague, DTN/Progressive Farmer Crops Technology Editor Pam Smith, forwarded a blog post to me and a few others.
"Whoa. This is the first I've heard about off-color Enlist and that there may be segregation by trait at harvest," she wrote. "Anyone else picking up on this?"
The blog post came from agronomists Shawn Conley at the University of Wisconsin and Seth Naeve at the University of Minnesota. It described the issue of seed coat discoloration that was being observed in some Enlist E3 soybean varieties, causing those beans to not make grade as U.S. No. 1 or U.S. No. 2 yellow soybean, potentially affecting their marketability and value at export. (You can read their post here: https://blog-crop-news.extension.umn.edu/…)
In my previous professional role, I worked regularly with both soybean organizations and soybean farmers. I'd even written about the nuances of soybean grading before. However, this developing issue with "Soybeans of Other Colors," otherwise known as "SBOC," was news to me. It piqued my journalistic curiosity, and I jumped on the story, asking those pesky questions to anyone who'd answer the phone.
After visiting with the agronomists who wrote the initial blog, I interviewed a grain grader, a grain trader, an agribusiness association executive, a soybean grower association and a representative of Corteva Agriscience. One trade association declined a request for an interview. (Sometimes, what's not said speaks louder than the answers you actually do get.) In this case, it quickly became clear: While everyone acknowledged the issue, there wasn't much that could be done to solve it in September with a new crop nearing harvest.
When my initial story went online (you can read it here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…), DTN was the first major agricultural news outlet to tell the story. While I enjoy all forms of writing, this was the first honest-to-goodness news story I had written in a long time. There's a little thrill that comes with breaking a story, and needless to say, it felt really good to stretch my journalistic muscles.
As fall continued and the 2022 soybean crop was harvested, I kept asking questions about SBOC. If the issue existed, I wanted to see it firsthand. But my attempts were thwarted, both on the farm and by grain inspectors. It didn't surprise me that folks were quiet as church mice about these off-color beans -- no one wants to draw attention to a problem, especially when it's one they might get docked for at the elevator.
Then, in early November, the first potential "solution" to the problem came in the form of an announcement from USDA, which said the Federal Grain and Inspection Service (FGIS) would publish a proposed rule seeking public comment on a proposal that could lead to the elimination of SBOC as a grading factor for determining soybean quality.
I reported on the announcement the same day (read more here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…), but after filing that story, I still had one unanswered question nagging at me.
Though I don't own a beige raincoat or smoke cigars, I felt like Lt. Frank Columbo from the classic TV crime drama. After interviewing a suspect, Columbo would often begin to leave a room only to return with his famous catchphrase, "Just one more thing," then proceed to ask a critical question.
My "just one more thing" question was, "Why is color part of the grading standards for U.S. soybeans to begin with?" Looking for the answer took me all the way back to the very beginning of commercial soybean production in the United States.
While I previously had learned that wild soy wasn't yellow, I had no idea how varied soybean color was in the early 20th century. Turns out, not a lot of people today do either. When the first standards were set in 1925, that variation required five separate color classes -- a far cry from the homogeneous sea of yellow beans we have today.
It led me to the conclusion that the yellow color is most certainly a defining characteristic for the highest-quality U.S. soybeans, an opinion I was able to share in this blog post: https://www.dtnpf.com/…. This piece afforded me an opportunity to write in yet another style, one that I'd rarely attempted before. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and hope for similar ones in the future.
As the new kid on the block at DTN, covering the SBOC issue was my favorite story in 2022. While it's too soon to know what, if any, changes will be proposed for soybean grading standards, it's certainly a story I'm keeping my eye on in 2023.
Jason Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter @JasonJenkinsDTN
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