Lee occupies a
unique position in the College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences. He joined the College early in 2001
as its first marketing coordinator for value-added products. Since then,
he has worked closely with the Grain
Growers Cooperative, a group of farmers formed in 1999 to develop
new crops in North Carolina and new markets for existing crops.
Among the projects
Lee has been most involved in is trying to sell small-seeded soybeans
used to make a food called natto to the Japanese. It is an effort that
illustrates the complexities of developing new agricultural markets.
At first glance,
it would appear that North Carolina farmers would be well-positioned
to penetrate the market for natto soybeans. Thats because of the
work of Dr. Tommy Carter, a U.S. Department
of Agriculture soybean breeder stationed at N.C.
State University. Carter has developed several soybean varieties
suitable both for making natto and for growing in North Carolina.
natto as the Japanese equivalent of grits, adding that natto is a sticky,
brown substance made from fermented soybeans.
Natto is a regional
food, Carter says, eaten primarily in Southern Japan. Southern Japanese
will typically spread a little natto over rice for breakfast. Natto
can be found in Asian markets in the United States and is served at
the Disney World Hilton Hotel in California, which is visited by a large
number of Japanese tourists.
fit into Japan about like grits do here, says Carter of natto.
Carter began working
to develop small-seeded soybeans suited to North Carolina about a decade
ago, after a soybean broker who visited Jim Wilder, executive director
of the North Carolina Soybean Growers Association, asked about the availability
of small-seeded soybean varieties. Wilder in turn asked Carter.
then, wed never thought of [breeding] small-seeded varieties,
that a soybean breeder at Virginia Tech
University had showed him a small-seeded variety he had developed,
thinking the beans might be used on salad bars in this country. Carter
contacted the breeder, who had one bushel of the beans left in a freezer.
The salad bar idea hadnt worked out.
The Virginia Tech
breeder sent that last bushel to Carter, and starting with that bushel,
Carter developed a new variety called Vance, which was released to growers
jointly by N.C. State and Virginia Tech.
Carter later developed
a variety called Pearl, while in the last two years, he has released
four more small-seeded varieties and a large-seeded variety suitable
for making tofu. Of the four recently released small-seeded varieties,
two, called N 7102 and N 7103, appear suitable for the natto market.
The other two are susceptible to an unsightly blemish that Japanese
buyers dont like.
varieties suitable for making natto may have been the easy part. Marketing
is the hard part, according to Carter.
a determined and sustained effort to market to the Japanese, says
Carter and Lee
were part of a North Carolina delegation that visited Japan in July
2001 in an effort to build relationships with Japanese buyers. Wilder
of the North Carolina Soybean Growers Association also was a member
of the delegation, as were representatives of the North
Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Grain
Growers Cooperative. A similar delegation visited Japan in July 2000
before Lee joined the College.
As a result of
those trips, Lee and the Grain Growers Cooperative arranged contracts
to grow about 2,000 acres of natto soybeans in North Carolina in 2001.
In 2002, 1,700 acres of the soybeans were grown. Lee says natto soybeans
are typically cleaned over the winter and shipped to Japan in the spring
the year after they are harvested.
Lee has experienced
some difficulty in 2002 finding growers willing to contract to grow
natto soybeans, which illustrates the difficulty of developing a market
for the soybeans.
will pay a premium price for natto soybeans, Lee says, but that doesnt
necessarily mean there are huge profits to be made growing the soybeans.
To begin with, Japanese buyers will not purchase genetically modified
soybeans, and sellers must certify that their product is not genetically
time-consuming cleaning of equipment if the equipment is used to produce
genetically modified soybeans and expensive testing of the natto soybeans,
both here and in Japan.
Lee points out
that most farmers who contract to grow natto soybeans also grow conventional
soybeans, and when it comes to conventional soybeans, growers increasingly
favor Roundup Ready soybeans, which are genetically engineered to resist
easier to grow Roundup Ready soybeans, Lee says, than it is to grow
conventional soybeans, which explains the popularity among growers of
Roundup Ready soybeans. Spraying Roundup on the soybeans early in the
growing season is usually all it takes to control weeds. Controlling
weeds in natto or conventional soybeans that arent Roundup Ready
is more time-consuming and costly. At the same time, Roundup Ready soybean
yields are often a little higher than yields for conventional soybeans.
The bottom line,
Lee says, is that growers must invest more time and effort to grow natto
soybeans with roughly the same return they get from conventional soybeans.
Other crops can also pose a problem. In 2002, for example, cotton appeared
to be more profitable than in past years, and Lee says some farmers
who might otherwise have contracted to grow natto soybeans decided to
grow cotton instead.
Yet natto soybeans
do appear to be a realistic alternative crop for some North Carolina
farmers, which undoubtedly is why Golden
LEAF, the foundation that is distributing tobacco settlement funds
for projects designed to help tobacco farmers, has funded the efforts
of the Grain Growers Cooperative. The cooperative has purchased the
exclusive right to sell seed of the natto varieties Carter developed,
while Golden LEAF grants were used to purchase equipment needed to sort
soybeans prior to shipment.
for North Carolina farmers to produce natto soybeans is one of the cooperatives
first efforts, says Lee, because the soybeans are seen as an early
opportunity to generate revenue for the co-op.
Carter and Lee
agree that natto soybeans represent a niche market. Carter says Japans
entire consumption amounts to only a couple of hundred thousand acres
annually. But both also see potential for natto soybeans in North Carolina.
to know what might spring out of it, says Lee of the effort to
sell soybeans in Japan.