Soybeans growers in Yolo, Sutter and Sacramento counties are expecting a good crop of beans this fall.

No, you did not pick up a copy of Corn and Soybean Digest by mistake. This is Western Farm Press and soybeans are proving to be an attractive alternative crop for Northern California farmers.

It is not a million acres, and no one need worry that California may become the newest soybean cartel. It is only 4,000 acres so far. However, the dozen or so growers producing them this season are expected to be joined by other farmers in the area next year who want to get in on what is developing to a pretty good alternative crop for producers in the Southern Sacramento Valley.

No one is getting rich producing soybean crops in California, but with Roundup Ready technology it doesn’t cost a lot either and growers can put a little cash in their pockets.

It is not the first time soybeans have been produced in Northern California. In the late 1970s, a group of progressive San Joaquin Valley growers tried them, but they left most of what they grew in the field because the beans shattered so badly when they dried down and at harvest.

Twenty years ago when John Gilbert of Adams Grain Co. in Arbuckle, Calif., graduated from college he went to work as a pest control adviser in Robbins, Calif., in Sutter County.

"There was a farmer then who tried 20 acres of soybeans one year," he said. That was the first and last time he saw soybeans growing in the Sacramento Valley until Adams and Gilbert convinced a few growers to try Roundup Ready soybeans four years ago.

"The whole idea behind soybeans was to find an alternative crop," said Gilbert. That is what brought cotton back to the Sacramento Valley a decade ago. Adams Grain and Gilbert were instrumental in the re-introduction of cotton where it had been grown commercially 50 years earlier.

Planting opportunity

Corn, alfalfa, safflower, processing tomatoes, rice, edible beans, cereal, cotton, forage crops, sunflower and vine planting seed are the primary crops for NorCal row crop growers. The idea behind soybeans was to find an alternative primarily for the seed crops, which require isolation because they are grown for planting seed. Soybeans could go where the seed crops were precluded.

"Our idea was to use soybeans as part of a biofuel project," said Gilbert. Adams operates small oil mill and contracted the beans from the producers.

That first year when growers tried a few small plots, mostly full season beans, soybean prices were about $6.50 per hundredweight. Yields ranged from 1,000 to 4,000 pounds per acre. That was enough to keep interest up.

Interest perked up when prices got up to $8 per hundred in 2002. Soybeans really started Gilbert’s phone ringing last year when prices started bumping into the $10 to $11 per hundredweight range. Some of the 2004 crop was contracted for $11, and Gilbert’s phone continues to ring from growers wanting a 2005 soybean contract.

About 75 percent of the herbicide-resistant soybeans this year are double cropped behind wheat, and Gilbert expects that to become the norm for NorCal soybeans. One grower, however, planted conventional soybeans in a field he is certifying for organic production.

Sacramento Valley soybeans are grown in a wide array of configurations, three-rows on a 60-inch bed; two rows on a 60-inch bed and drilled flat into 7-inch rows. "They’ll work in just about any system a grower is now using," said Gilbert.

Full season irrigated beans can average 3,000 to 3,500 pounds per acre while double crop beans can yield 2,000 to 2,500 pounds.

Growers are eager to try soybeans for several reasons, according to Gilbert. One is they do not require specialized equipment to plant or harvest. Secondly, "as a federal farm program crop, you do not need a soybean base under the current farm law to be eligible for the soybean loan and other program benefits," said Gilbert.

Not big profit

"No one is going to get rich on soybeans. You are talking about little more than $200 per acre for 25 sacks at $8.50 per sack," said Gilbert. That is probably the breakeven point for NorCal soybeans.

The cost of individual farmer’s irrigation water is probably the biggest variable in determining if beans offer a profitable return, said Gilbert.

"What makes it nice with double cropping is that with the Roundup Ready varieties, you can sprinkle them up and take care of the weeds with herbicide over the top," said Gilbert. Some growers also pre-irrigate before planting.

Soybeans require only a "small amount of starter fertilizer to get good and as a legume they fix nitrogen, which means growers are putting something back into the soil," he explained.

One grower successfully used a two-season wheat-soybean-corn rotation in a conservation tillage program, said Gilbert. He planted winter wheat last fall; harvested it in the summer; planted Roundup Ready soybeans immediately after the wheat was harvested. The beans were harvested ahead of the winter rainy season. The ground was fallowed without tillage through the winter and Roundup Ready corn was planted in the spring — all three crops on the same beds. The herbicide-resistant, low-growing soybeans are visible between the corn rows at corn harvest time, but the corn shaded them out enough that that they did not compete with the corn crop.

Gilbert said Pioneer 94B23 Roundup Ready variety is the dominant variety being grown in Northern California. "The newer varieties do not seem to shatter at harvest as much as they say the old ones did. Also, the shatter seems to less of a problem in Sacramento County where there is a little more humidity," he noted. "Yields seem to be better there as well."

One drawback from previous California soybean experiments that has not gone away is spider mites. "Two-spotted spider mites can be a real problem, especially where there is dust. Unfortunately, there are not too many miticides registered for use on soybeans in California," said Gilbert. Growers have tested acaracides registered on other crops and found Capture to be effective.

"We are working with the California Seed Association to get a special local need registration for Capture on soybeans," said Gilbert.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com