Soybeans were my first “discovery” and led to the creation of Salt Spring Seeds in 1986. I was amazed to find that some varieties of soybeans were tasty and digestible when cooked as a dry bean and that the growing season was long enough for them here in coastal British Columbia. In getting carried away by a host of other beans and grains over the past eighteen years, my initial enthusiasm for soybeans hasn't diminished but it has not been as foremost in my mind. Now soybeans have returned to a prominent place in my thoughts thanks to the recent acceleration of biogenetic engineering.
Monsanto Corporation has bioengineered a soybean, which can withstand applications of their product Roundup. Roundup is the best-selling herbicide worldwide and basically kills any green living thing. To my mind, there is a qualitative difference between a soybean with extra genes inserted to render it immune to such a powerful poison and the original soybean. Monsanto officials would dismiss my concern as unscientific but I say their success in pushing Roundup Ready Soybeans on us are very scary.
Although we don't know what transgenic crops may do to us or to the environment, their introduction into the marketplace is virtually unregulated. The North American public is denied the right to know if foods have been genetically modified. 60% of food products contain processed soybeans and over 95% of soybeans planted are now genetically modified.
I've been glad to maintain some fine soybean varieties because they have a lot going for them as simple and nourishing food. Now the pleasure is tempered by necessity: the thought that Salt Spring Seeds is one of the few sources of unmodified seed is a most sobering one.
Soybeans have been cultivated for over 5,000 years, most notably in China and Japan. Unfortunately, we process this wonderful legume in every imaginable fashion, instead of simply cooking it up. Most accessible varieties have been bred for fodder or for processing rather than human consumption. The wonder is that there are delicious soybean varieties that grow as easily as the indigestible ones you may have already tried and rejected.
Vast acreages of soybeans are grown as fodder for cattle and pigs. The heavily subsidized meat and dairy industries wreak ecological havoc with both our water and soil resources. My question is, why grow soybeans to feed animals to feed people when we could be growing them to eat directly?
Soybeans are the only legume containing all nine essential amino acids (the only proteins the human body can't manufacture on its own). Soybeans have no cholesterol and are low in saturated fats and sodium. They are an excellent source of dietary fibre. They are high in iron, calcium, B vitamins, zinc, lecithin, phosphorous and magnesium. (However, it is important to note that a lot of this goodness in lost or diminished by processing soybeans. Tofu, for example, contains 28 percent less iron, only 10 percent of the fibre and B vitamins and none of the vitamins A and C found in cooked whole soybeans.)
Soybeans contain over 35 percent protein by weight—which is more than any other unprocessed plant or animal food. An acre of soybeans produces between ten and twenty times more useable proteins than an equivalent acre used to graze beef cattle. Despite the exaggeration of protein needs in North America, high-protein crops are more necessary as it becomes increasingly expensive and dangerous to eat at the top of the food chain. Even commercial soybeans are relatively free of chemical toxins. Meat, fish and poultry have about twenty times and dairy foods about four and one half times more pesticide residues than soybeans. Similarly, soybeans contain fewer radioactive residues and no synthetic hormone additives.
The drought tolerance of soybeans is a special asset as it is very evident that water will become a most precious resource in the coming decades. Nor are soybeans heavy feeders; they require minimal fertilizer and are nitrogen-fixing plants that enrich the soil. Also, the fact that soybeans can be simply cooked and eaten keeps energy output minimal. Freezing and canning are unnecessary, as are fancy plastic packages.
A loose well-drained loam is what soybeans like best, but they do well in a wide range of soil conditions. They prefer soil on the acidic side (pH from 5.8 to 7.0).
Brown and black soybeans have the best flavour but it is hard to find these except through a few seed companies. Yellow cultivars found in grocery and health food stores are hard to digest and take forever to cook.
Soybeans are a warm weather crop, usually planted around the same time as corn. Soil and air temperatures of at least 55-60° F (10-16 °C) are needed for good germination. The last week in May or the first week in June are the usual times to plant soybeans in southern Canada and the northern U.S.
I plant my seeds about an inch deep in rows that are 1-2 feet apart. Seeds should be able to absorb enough moisture to germinate, so if soil is low in moisture or sandy, plant twice as deep. Soybeans do well either in raised beds or in traditional rows. Although I space my soybeans 5-6 inches apart so there is enough distance to safely hoe between them, they are fine at even 2 inches apart. If you use a rototiller, it is most efficient to plant rows slightly more than a rototiller's width apart.
Like other legumes, soybeans have roots hosting nodule-forming bacteria that can convert the nitrogen in air to a plant-usable kind. If soybeans have not been grown on your soil before, it is a good idea to inoculate the seed with the proper strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, available at farm and garden stores or through seed catalogues.
It is important to weed in the early stages, as soybeans can be much slower to get going than the common weeds that love June weather. I usually hoe and hand weed two or three times before the soybean plants form a canopy that shades out competition.
Reaching deep into the ground, soybeans have a fairly pronounced taproot that makes them quite tolerant of drought. The most important time to ensure adequate soil moisture is from flowering in early summer through pod formation shortly after.
In the nearly twenty years I've been growing soybeans, I've yet to have any problems with pests or diseases.
Soybeans are ready to harvest as dry beans when the leaves have fallen and the beans rattle in their pods. This is usually around mid-September here on the west coast but early September where summers are hot. Pods can be picked individually. They can also be quickly stripped from the stalk with an upward motion of one hand. (Wear gloves and hold the stalk lower down with the other hand!) I usually gather my harvest in large buckets.
Green vegetable soybeans, often called Butterbeans, are soybeans that are eaten at the fresh shell stage and are harvested just as the pods begin to lose their bright green colour. Traditionally they are steamed or boiled in the pod for about 5 minutes, cooled, popped out of the pods, then reheated.
Pods can be shelled one by one or they can be rubbed apart by foot in a threshing box. To thresh by foot the seeds must be dry enough so that a fingernail can't make an indentation. Chaff can be removed with suitable screening or blown away with a fan or hair dryer. I use a small air compressor with a blow-nozzle attachment. I always leave my seeds on screens in the sunlight for an extra day or two to ensure maximum drying.
Yields aren't as high as for other beans, but soybeans are a much more substantial food, being about 40% protein. A 100-foot row will fill a gallon jar with about eight pounds of soybeans. Intensive raised beds can yield over four pounds per 36 square feet.
Homegrown soybeans need about 90 minutes simmering after an overnight soaking to be cooked al dente. Most commercial types will need at least 3 hours cooking.
Soybeans can be substituted for other dried beans in many recipes. They are more filling than pintos or kidneys because they are higher in both protein and oil. For this reason, when substituting soybeans for other legumes you can reduce the required amount by a third.
Soybean varieties don't cross, so maintaining your own seed is easy: don't eat all you harvest.
Over 6 billion bushels of soybeans are harvested annually in North America, virtually none of which are intended for direct human consumption. If soybeans are ever to catch on as beans that can be eaten and appreciated like pinto or kidney beans, it seems to me that people who grow their own will be the ones to start the trend and create the demand. Soybeans do present such a great advertisement for themselves. The plants radiate a clean solidity, robustness and lushness, which are consummated by the satisfaction of eating the mild and nutty cooked beans. They are a sustainable, delicious and totally appropriate food plant for our current and future sustenance. Try them- you'll love them!