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From Russian war in Ukraine to damp weather: Here's what's top of mind for central Illinois soybean farmers

Soybean plants grow in a field near Tiskilwa, Ill.
Daniel Acker
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Soybean plants grow in a field near Tiskilwa, Ill.

If you've been out driving on country roads throughout central Illinois in recent weeks, you may have noticed farmers in their fields, getting ready to plant this year's crops.

Farmers make many calculations as to when, exactly, is the best time to get seed into the ground.

Andrew Larson is the director of market development for the Bloomington-based Illinois Soybean Association.

In an interview with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Larson explains what's top of mind for soybean farmers throughout Greater Peoria and McLean County — from the Russian war in Ukraine ... to this week's weather forecast.

The following is a transcript of an interview that aired Wednesday, April 6, on All Things Peoria. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Andrew Larson: (The weather) is unpredictable, right? You don't know from year to year, whether it's going to be a wet year or a dry year. I know we've seen higher concentrations of wet periods within a year, and dry periods throughout a year. ... It has definitely changed the timing over the last several seasons of when that weather is expected. And we're seeing more of that weather early.

Hannah Alani: Tell us a bit about what this year looks like right now. Is this a wet year? Is this a dry year? Have soybeans gone in the ground yet?

Andrew Larson headshot.jpg
Illinois Soybean Association
Andrew Larson is the director of market development for the Illinois Soybean Association.

Andrew Larson: They're anticipating starting here in a few weeks. But knowing that the conditions have to be right ... and there's not much you can do about that. We know we had some dry spots in the state and region last growing season. I think a lot of those are looking a lot better than they had previously, at the end of the growing season. So I think we're in a good position to get things rolling.

Farmers are very efficient, and can get a lot of acres planted really quickly. They're really good at doing that. It's absolutely something that I'm amazed by, the speed that they can move. And I think where we sit today, we look pretty good. We ... can anticipate a pretty good planting season. There's a lot of instability in the world, about markets, and what's going on. But certainly, we think that we have high confidence for a really strong crop for 2022.

Hannah Alani: The war in Ukraine is affecting the corn farmers here in Illinois; we recently ran a piece looking into that. I'm wondering if there is a parallel with our soybean crop, and our soybean farmers. Is (the war) an outside external influence, a variable beyond our control, that's going to affect this growing season, or our exports?

Andrew Larson: Russia itself is a major wheat producer. Ukraine, as well, produces a lot of wheat. They produce a lot of sunflowers, and they produce a good amount of corn, as well. The corn acres ... I think there's a confidence that between the U.S. and Brazil, there's an opportunity to take those acres, and some of the demand in the world, and fill that need.

But certainly the major issue there is, there's a world shortage of fertilizer. And fertilizer is a big piece of what comes out of the Black Sea region as well. And that may not have as much of an impact on this growing season. But as you look to South America, and their growing season ... obviously being on the opposite pole to us, they're starting to plant in September, October, November ... there could be a lot of uncertainty.

Hannah Alani: You mentioned Russia and Ukraine being big players in the wheat market. I'm wondering if the global instability could affect what's planted here in central Illinois. We have such fertile soil ... I'm wondering if farmers will change what's planted to meet increased global demand?

Andrew Larson: The one major crop that could see some major growth in planted acres is spring wheat. Obviously, most of the wheat we grow here in Illinois is a winter wheat, where you plant it in the fall and it stays dormant over the winter months. And it emerges here in the springtime. But there are different varieties of hard red wheats and spring wheats that you can plant in the spring, that traditionally we don't do a lot of here in the lower Midwest. That's done a lot in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana. And anecdotally, there has been some wheat planting happening in Montana, we heard about.

...I think there's a confidence that U.S. farmers can play a bigger role in helping supply that. Illinois, last year due to weather, had very favorable growing conditions for wheat. We were in the top five in wheat production for the first time in a long time, maybe ever ... in 2021. So there's certainly a lot of farmers, particularly in the southern portions of the state ... 'double cropping', where they plant soybean crop, after they take that winter wheat crop out in late June, early July. So there's a potential for that to have a good year.

Hannah Alani: What role do you think soybeans, specifically, will play moving forward?

Andrew Larson: Ukraine does grow some soybeans, but they're not the primary driver. The larger issue with Ukraine is vegetable oils. Sunflowers from Ukrainian producers are predominantly crushed to make sunflower oil ... vegetable oil is a very important commodity for food systems around the world. And knowing that soybeans are 20% oil by volume after they're processed here — either they're processed here in the United States, or exported as a whole bean — the oil has a lot of value in human food products. Of course it has additional value in a biofuel product, as well. But there was an increase in global demand already before the Ukraine situation.

Places like India, other South Asian countries, African countries, use these oil stocks as a nutritional and calorie enhancer in their foods. Not necessarily the way we use a lot of cooking oils in our diet and cuisine. But it's used as part of the food products in those countries to add calories and nutrition to it. So there's certainly a lot of interest in that.

A farmer offloads soybeans from his combine as he harvests his crops in Brownsburg, Ind., in September.
Michael Conroy
A farmer offloads soybeans from his combine as he harvests his crops in Brownsburg, Ind., in September.

The Indians did purchase some Russian sunflower oil the other day, and they paid a lot for it. And though there were a lot of folks who didn't like them doing that, the Indians have to get that oil stock somewhere for their food systems and network. So certainly, an interesting topic that I know we will hear a lot more about this year, as to where the global vegetable oil market is, and soybeans being a major supplier to that.

We export 60% of our soybeans overall in the U.S. And of the 40% of the stays here, about half of that oil is used for food purposes domestically. We don't traditionally export a lot of that oil. There's a whole lot of things evolving in that space ... it's certainly something that's going to be a major topic throughout the rest of this year.

Andrew Larson is the director of market development for the Illinois Soybean Association. He is a graduate of Illinois State University.

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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.