Cover story: Made to order

Cover of the Nov. 12/19, 2010, issue of The Land.

Dealing in a variety of health food products, SunOpta Grains and Foods Group, in Hope in Steele County, specializes in organic and non-genetically modified soybeans, corn and sunflowers for both domestic and overseas food markets, plus organic feeds for the livestock industry.

Todd and Raquel Hansen have been growing corn and soybeans for SunOpta for over 25 years. Raquel’s parents and grandparents were instrumental in the launching of Sunrich, the product name of the Minnesota Waxy Corn Growers Association, in 1978. This organization was formed to meet an identified demand for waxy corn and food-grade soybeans, mainly destined for the Japanese market.

Waxy corn and food-grade soybeans are main staples in the Asian diet. However in recent years, development of GMO-type grains has raised concern by some end-users of the safety of these food products thus leading to a market demand for “non-GMO” corn and soybeans.

Raquel Hansen, who also is the assistant vice president for SunOpta, said tofu and soymilk soybeans have become major items for SunOpta, which now is the nation’s leading producer of soymilk. That particular product is produced at Alexandria, Modesto, Calif., and Heuvelton, N.Y.

Miso, soysauce, tofu and soymilk today are the primary products of soybeans merchandised through SunOpta. For the Hansens that means growing a high-protein, non-GMO 2.2 maturity soybean. Generally these food-grade varieties don’t match the yield capabilities of GMO beans but she said this was one of their better yielding years.

Because of some yield drag and required extra attention to quality, growers of the non-GMO food-grade products get paid a higher premium. Some extra “marketing effort” might be involved as well. For example the Japanese food firm buying soybeans from the Hansens personally visited the Hansen farm prior to their contract agreement to purchase the soybeans.

This firm also wanted updates on the crop during the growing season, so she provided them periodically with pictures of the crop plus planting date, soil temperatures at planting time, wind temperature when the crop was sprayed — essentially all the details the crop encountered during the growing season.

This might sound challenging and a bit of a nuisance, but for the Hansens it was simply a matter of doing business with a Japanese customer who values personal contacts with its Minnesota farmers.

“They wanted to know us. They wanted to see our farm and the equipment we use. We had to establish their complete trust,” Raquel said, noting that a visit to this food company in Japan is on their future travel agenda.

Hansen’s non-GMO soybean is a clear hilum soybean slightly larger than a conventional or Roundup-Ready soybean variety. Delivered to the Hope SunOpta plant, the soybeans are cleaned, any off-color beans are picked out by the color sorter, and screened for sizing so that the product when bagged into 66.6-pound paper bags is a more uniform product than nature provides.

Pricing varies depending upon delivery month and particular varieties used. She indicated their food-grade soybeans average about eight-bushel lower yields but this also varies depending upon varieties.

Because the food-grade market is somewhat cyclical, the Hansens currently grow both food-grade and RR soybeans. Plus there’s a “cleanup” feature that RR soybeans provided for some of their non-GMO fields showing a resistance issue on certain weeds.

“We’re in the Minnesota Extension Farm Business Management program at Owatonna so we’ll do complete records on a field-by-field basis to identify costs and returns for both our non-GMO fields and our RR fields,” she said.

Raquel’s husband, Todd said, “each year we scrutinize our bottom line to determine what makes sense financially for raising specialty crops over GMO crops, in addition to making sure we are diversified enough to manage risks appropriately. Specialty grains help with risk management by selling our product through diverse market channels and using different marketing tools.”

They do variable-rate fertilizer applications based on grid-sampling of all fields. “If there are financial and environmental benefits, we don’t shy from incorporating new technologies into our farming programs. So when my husband makes his final analyses, there often are new ideas for the next season,” Raquel said.

Identity Preserved storage and special handling is the protocol with non-GMO soybeans. This means a complete “flushing” of the combine, the grain carts, the trucks and any other grain handling equipment when moving from GMO soybeans into non-GMO, food-grade soybeans.

Flushing means running a couple hundred bushels of food-grade soybeans first through the combine, then into the grain cart, and the trucks used for transport. Next those “flushing soybeans” get dumped into your elevator pit for a final pass through the grain leg before marketing at the local elevator.

Because corn cross-pollinates, they harvest a buffer strip as feed-grade, conventional corn before getting into the rest of the non-GMO harvest. The Hansens basically use a 50-50 corn-soybean rotation but also do some corn-on-corn each year to verify strategies.

Even foreign markets can be challenging. Right now inventories of non-GMO grains are high in Japan so the demand is lessening for American production. The Japanese population is diminishing and their culture is moving away from the traditional Japanese foods and into the “junk foods” of American culture.

“So for now growth in our own domestic markets plus other Asian markets is where the future seems to be for our products,” Raquel said.

The Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service showed 96,342 acres of organic agricultural land in Minnesota in 2007, 3.7 percent of the U.S. total. In 2009, non-GMO production in the United States was 6.58 million acres or 8.50 percent of the total planted acres of 77.46 million.

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