How Your Soybeans are Processed

Updated: Apr 15

Are you curious about the ingredients in your food?

Did you know that soybeans are now the largest crop grown in the U.S., according to U.S. Farm Data?

Surprisingly, a very small percentage of the total soybean crop is actually consumed by humans. We may see soybeans in soybean oil, tofu and soy milk, but all of those consumable soy products only make up around 3% of the soybeans processed each year by farmers. According to the NC Soybean Producers Association, almost all of the soybeans that you see growing in fields throughout the upper Midwest are used for animal feed or for the next year's seeds.

Dave Colbert lives in Indiana, a state that produces a large share of the country's soybeans. He had the opportunity to ride along with a soybean farmer during harvest and wrote about it on his blog. We're sharing excerpts of the story below, courtesy of Dave. To read the full essay, visit Dave's site here.

It’s harvest time in southern Indiana. My friend and his brother have finished harvesting corn and are now finishing their soybean harvest.

Collecting soybeans used to be a pretty rough undertaking. Early 1960s-vintage combine harvesters were open-cab affairs. It was you—the operator—and whatever was in the air.

During the harvest any dust that was on the plants gets thrown aloft. When the sickle bar cuts the bean stems, particles created begin blowing around too. As the bean plants hit the auger and are driven into the machinery to be stripped and the beans are separated, all the waste that is churned up has to go somewhere. In an open cab harvester, you’re sitting in the middle of somewhere.

Things have improved. For one, you’re enclosed. You sit in a glass box. Tempered, tinted glass separates you from most of the dust. Climate control keeps you from resembling a rotisserie chicken by the end of the day. That’s right. This ride is air conditioned. It has a radio. It has gauges galore relaying all kinds of data about ground covered, yield per acre, average yield per field, and more things than I can remember.

The price per bushel for soybeans is anywhere from $9.25 - $9.47 today. Very roughly, that is $10 for every 60 pounds of beans.

Circling the field

soybean farming
Harvest time in the soybean field (photo courtesy Dave Colbert).

We are climbing the non-skid metal ladder leading to the cab of this combine. Your tour guide will be Mark. He’s been at this a while. What we’re going to do, once you reach behind you and close that door, is take a trip around the field.

Mark puts the machine in gear and we begin to move around the field. A combine is a little factory on wheels. When it is finished, you’ll have a large container, or hopper, full of shelled beans and not much else. Look just in front of us. The head, or the removable piece that goes at the very front of the combine is an impressive conglomeration of moving parts.

The head we use to harvest beans has several rows of tines set on bars attached to rotating wheels. As the combine moves forward, job one of the bars and tines is to grab and hold the bean stems and pull them into the sickle bar. The sickle bar neatly cuts them near their bases.

Job two of the bars and tines is to sweep the plant cuttings further into the combine head, where the blades of an auger will move them toward a central throat. At that point, serrated bars mounted on chains pull the stems and the attached pods into the harvester.

Inside the machine is where the magic is. It must be. I couldn’t see into the machine, but the beans then mysteriously appear in the hopper like thousands upon thousands of tiny, golden brown gumballs.

The rest of the plant is chewed up and spat out the back where two spinning plates with blades distribute it onto the freshly cut stubble.

Here's what fresh-picked soybeans look like (photo courtesy Dave Colbert).

If you look in the convex mirror attached to the door, you’ll see a window built into the hopper. It lets you see how full the hopper is. Pretty full, as a matter of fact. So Mark is pulling up alongside the grain trailer.

He throws a lever and a long, tubular arm moves out until it is perpendicular to the combine. Don’t open the door. Beans are moving through that tube and falling into the empty bin of the truck. If you open that door while all the dust is kicking up, we’ll have tossed away 50 years of progress in creature comforts. Let’s let it settle first.

We climb down the ladder of the combine, walk a few feet, then open the passenger door, grab a handle, and climb into the semi.

This is a farm truck. It moves grain from its point of collection or point of storage to a market. Today, that market is Newburgh, Indiana.

We check in at the gate of our destination, where they pull a sample of the grain we are carrying. Then we drive onto a scale. 84,637 pounds. Once our loaded weight is established, we pull forward to the unloading area.

When the discharge doors are directly over the grates in the concrete floor, we stop. The attendant starts the flow from the trailers. Much faster than you’d expect, both bins of the grain trailer are empty.

As long as the weather holds, Mark will continue operating the combine into the dark hours. It’s a time of long hours to bring in the crops that will finance seed and chemicals for next year and tide several families over the winter until they can begin it all again.

RELATED: Meet Dave's wife Joan in our interview with her here.