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Where’s the proof?

When it comes to U.S. soybeans and farmers’ ability to meet customer demands, the proof is not “in the pudding.” It’s in the numbers.

Farmers in Illinois and across the country have proven once again that we can produce the quality and quantity of soybeans desired by international customers.

The United States exported 1.8 billion bushels of soy during the 2011-12 marketing year. While slightly less than the 2 billion bushels exported the year before, the numbers indicate a continued preference and demand for our soybeans. Included in the total were 1.3 billion bushels of whole soybeans, meal from more than 413 million bushels of soybeans and the oil from 131 million bushels of soybeans.

Here’s another number: U.S. soy exports for the year were valued at more than $23 billion.

Those are all pretty big numbers, especially the one with the dollar sign. Obviously, numbers and dollar signs are important – not only to Illinois farmers, but also to the people who live in our communities. Exporting soybeans and other ag products not only helps increase profits for local farmers, it also helps boost local economies.

On that note, it’s important to remember that farmers in our area play a very prominent role in the export market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that, in any given year, between 44 and 54 percent of Illinois soybeans are exported. In 2010-11, Illinois ranked second nationally with soybean exports valued at more than $3.1 billion.

What many people don’t realize is the role soybeans play in foreign trade as a whole. Soybean export sales are seen as a positive for the U.S. in the highly competitive global trading arena. In Illinois, about one-fourth of the soybean crop is sold to China, which ranks third on the list of the state’s foreign trade partners after Canada and Mexico. China, by the way, is by far the biggest international customer of the U.S. soybean farmer, buying nearly 850 million bushels of U.S. soybeans in the most recent marketing year.

Customers use our soybeans to make livestock feeds, human foods, biodiesel and many other products. Foreign customers learn about our soybeans through programs we fund through our soy checkoff, which invests in efforts to increase international soy sales. The soy checkoff also works to assist foreign buyers with soybean purchases and keep them updated on the quality and condition of our crop.

Our international customers look for soybeans high in protein and oil. So the soy checkoff works with researchers to improve and maintain the amount of both of these components in our crop.

Our customers are also paying more and more attention to how we grow our crops. The production practices we use are important to many buyers. They’re looking for soybeans planted, grown, harvested and shipped in a sustainable manner.

I think the fact that U.S. soy exports remain at such a high level shows that U.S. and Illinois farmers are giving these customers what they want.

A key part of our ability to export soybeans is our transportation infrastructure. The Ohio, Mississippi and Illinois rivers provide an efficient avenue for Illinois soybeans to be sent to the Gulf of Mexico for shipping to Asia, the European Union and other overseas markets.

Our ability to continue meeting international soy demand hinges on the stability of our transportation system. And it’s in need of improvements. Unlike the drought of 2012, fixing our transportation system is a challenge we have some control over.

It’s hard to believe, but we’re not far away from planting season. It’s true – the calendar never takes a break. Right now, we’re busy preparing machinery and equipment. We’re also making final plans for the 2013 crop. Somehow I already have a great deal of confidence we’ll again grow what our customers need. Again, the proof will be in the numbers.

Sharon Covert is the USB secretary and a soybean farmer from Tiskilwa.

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