Chesapeake Fields plans expansion into Pennsylvania

Photo courtesy of Charles B. Ming/

Good news for Pennsylvania growers: Chesapeake Fields Farmers Cooperative LLC (CFFC), based in Chestertown, Md., wants to expand its growing acreage to include Pennsylvania.

“Our local market can easily take up another 2,000 to 3,000 acres. The export market could become a dramatic demand factor if we pursued it,” said Pat Boova, director of International Agribusiness Group LLC ( in Pottstown, Pa.

Edible soybeans can be grown in Pennsylvania. According to Alyssa Collins, Ph.D., director of Penn State’s Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Manheim, Pa., edible soybeans are no different from their genetically modified (GM) cousins when it comes to optimal growing conditions.

“Depending upon the maturity group of the bean variety preferred by the grower and buyer, a farmer would need to adjust planting time for their geographic region accordingly,” she said.

Collins added that all soybeans are edible; GM soybeans are glyphosate-resistant for those beans that carry the Roundup Ready trait. Conversely, unmodified beans are considered conventional beans.

Growing conventional soybeans

Chesapeake Fields Farmers Cooperative grows dark beans for sprouts.
Photo courtesy of SANA.

Generally speaking, there is little initial capital investment when a grower decides to add a conventional soybean crop to his fields. However, there are some steps that need to be taken in order to sell the soybeans.

In a nutshell, GM and conventional varieties need to be separate from seed to harvest.

“The biggest difference is keeping the edible soybeans segregated,” Boova said. “Postharvest handling is different in that this is a food product, so cleanliness and testing is different than it would be for commodity [feed] beans.”

For example, conventional soybeans can’t be directly planted where GM soybeans were planted the previous year. Also, to avoid cross-contamination with GM beans, all farming equipment used to plant and harvest conventional soybeans needs to be thoroughly washed and cleaned.

“A farmer who is currently growing soybeans would not necessarily need to invest in any new equipment, but they would need to spend some time cleaning out planting and harvesting equipment when moving from GM fields to non-GM fields in order to avoid contamination,” Collins said. “They may find it more efficient to dedicate separate grain bins or trucks to the storage and transport of the conventional beans as well.”

The grower also needs to use different herbicides on their conventional crop, rather than Roundup products. Additionally, if conventional and GM beans are planted in the same field, a buffer strip between the two must be in place.

Soybeans for tofu need white hilum to meet buyers’ needs.
Photo courtesy of SANA.

“Growing conventional beans also means a loss of glyphosate as a weed control. This simply entails a shift in herbicide program to one that relies on different chemistries,” Collins stated.

Fortunately, Collins added, farmers don’t need to worry about natural cross-pollination between the conventional and the GM varieties. Bees don’t present any problems with crossing between the two varieties, and cross-pollinating by wind is also low, even when the two different varieties are planted beside each other.

Yet, to stay on the safe side, Collins advised: “A farmer would want to reduce the chances further by planting their conventional beans away from GM soybeans.”

There are two different-colored varieties of edible soybeans that mid-Atlantic customers buy: dark and light. The color chosen depends on what the grower is using the soybeans for. The co-op projects how much of each variety their customers will want and can advise growers on how much seed they’ll need to purchase.

The majority of CFFC’s clientele are located along the northeastern corridor of the U.S.

“At this point, all of our production is staying local, with nothing being exported,” Boova explained. “The customers are mostly small, independent makers of soy milk, tofu and sprouts. They’re located between Washington, D.C., and Boston. If we can grow enough acres to export, the destinations will be Japan and South Korea.”

Earning power

Tony Neff is an experienced edible soybean grower. He’s currently president of Chesapeake Fields, which is a co-op for edible soybean growers. In 2011, his net revenue from edible beans was about $80 per acre, which is more than he would get per acre for “feed” soybeans.

These three groups represent the dark and clear hilums that buyers look for to make tofu varieties.
Photo by Miguel Schevenin.

Neff said that there is some money to be made in edible soybeans. More importantly, it is a developing niche for mid-Atlantic growers.

“There will always be a demand for edible beans in the mid-Atlantic region due to the shipping costs to move them here from the Midwest. Our buyers will pay for quality soybeans, and always our beans are tested at impartial laboratories for E. coli, coliform, listeria, mold, etc.,” Neff explained.

Neff also stated that the return on investment is a $2 premium for premium-graded soybeans, and that the screenings are priced at the local prices. According to Boova, when beans are run through a cleaner, screenings – split beans, cracked beans, dirt, dust, small beans, etc. – are separated out. The cleaned beans are sold as premium beans. The screened beans are sold as regular commodity beans.

“If you become a member of the co-op, you will receive a patronage refund each year. Original co-op members recouped membership costs [within] three to four years,” Neff stated.

Boova also noted that returns vary among farms, but this can add approximately $70 per acre compared to commodity beans. Based on personal experience, Neff believes that farmers can earn up to $80 per acre. He grew 80 acres in the 2011 and 2012 growing seasons.

These beans have severe purple stain. Purple stain is caused by the fungus Cercospora kikuchii.
Photo by Greg Hostetter.

Of course, there are challenges for growers when planting edible beans. According to Neff, buyers want to test new edible beans prior to having the co-op grow them. Sometimes, this procedure can take a year or so to get the buyers’ approval to grow a certain variety.

“The co-op is continually looking for a variety of soybeans, non-GMO, that has less yield drag and is still desirable to our buyers,” Neff said. “They’re very particular in the protein content of various varieties, and the tofu soybeans have to be a clear hilum. We grow the black hilum soybeans for sprouts; the black and white [bean varieties] shouldn’t be mixed. Pokeberry weeds are another small problem, and the berry will stain the bean. We normally just pull the weeds out at harvesttime.”

Immature soybeans at Penn State’s trial fields.
Photo by Mark Antle.

Boova feels confident that the domestic Asian market is solid, with moderate growth potential. “The export market could become quite robust if we could attract enough acres,” he added.

Purple stain

Purple stain is a condition that appears on edible soybeans infected with the fungus Cercospora kikuchii. According to Collins, purple stain is seen during growing seasons that are particularly rainy. She explained that the stains aren’t harmful; it’s a common phenomenon that doesn’t result in a major grain quality loss.

Two of Penn State’s edible soybean trial fields.
Photo by Mark Antle.

Neff added that purple stain will also discolor tofu during its production.

“For general processing beans, we normally would not recommend a fungicide. However, if soybean buyers are more sensitive to color because of end uses like tofu, the staining may be problematic, and a preventative spray would be needed,” Collins stated.

Neff said that Chesapeake Fields uses Quilt, Quadris or Headline at bloom, and he’s been pleased with the results. Chesapeake Fields also uses a color sorter in the cleaning and bagging operation, but using the sorter adds to the co-op’s production costs.

Boova noted that edible soybeans that don’t meet grade standards for their intended use are sold as commodity beans, and the farmer receives the same price they would get for a regular-grade crop.

Developing new varieties

Chesapeake Fields uses Schillinger Seed for two soybean seed varieties. The co-op sells those seeds directly to growers in southern Maryland and Virginia. Parts of Pennsylvania are still suitable for those same varieties, but if growers in the northern part of Pennsylvania and into New York plan to grow edible soybeans, other varieties will need to be investigated that are suitable for that climate.

“The current varieties may be too long a maturity for parts of Pennsylvania and New York,” Boova explained. “We’re talking to a Pennsylvania-based seed grower who has many varieties that may work for Pennsylvania growers and for Chesapeake Fields’ customers. Before we plant a new variety, we first give samples to our customers to see how that variety performs for [them].”

Soyfoods of North America:Soy’s Big Picture

Nancy Chapman, of the Soyfoods Association of North America (SANA, in Washington, D.C., said that soy food producers rely on edible soybeans. According to Chapman, edamame (immature green soybeans) and beans used for soy milk and tofu would be organic or non-GMO edible soybeans. Soy flour and soy protein are processed from non-GMO, organic and commodity beans.

“Soy foods in America, a market that has grown from $500 million to over $4 billion in 2012, depend on edible soybeans, especially for edamame, soy milk, tofu and products made from soy milk or tofu,” Chapman said.

Edible soybeans may not make a farmer rich, but they may open another niche to serve local markets. They will also provide an extra income stream for the farmers who grow these beans. For more information about growing edible soybeans, email Pat Boova at, or call him at 800-334-8881, extension 226.

Komancheck writes about Pennsylvania farming from her home in Lancaster County, Pa.