FoA 370: [History of Agriculture] William J Morse, the Father of the US Soybean Industry

Soy Checkoff: https://www.unitedsoybean.org/

Soy Info Center: https://www.soyinfocenter.com/

Studying the past is one of the most important activities for not only gaining perspective on the current state of the industry, but also to zoom out and get a better vantage point on where things may go from here, and what factors may drive it in that direction. That’s why, perhaps ironically, studying the history of agriculture is essential for a podcast that claims to be about the future of agriculture. Plus, I think most of you are just a little bit nerdy about agriculture like I am and enjoy knowing more about its history.

One of the things that has held me back from ever trying one of these episodes is that I worried it could very easily become a boring lecture of random facts and names and dates that didn’t really provide the real context I was hoping to provide. So I wondered, “what is the FoA approach to learning more about the history of agriculture?” And I came up with this: I’ll focus on a specific person who I wish I could go back to that time and interview. Then hopefully that individual’s story can provide insights and context into the time in a relatable way, and allow us to connect those experiences to our current situations. 

Keep in mind that this is an experiment, so if you like it or if you don’t like it, I’d sure like to know either way. I think you know where to find me by now, but tim@aggrad.com is probably the easiest to remember. 

All right, let’s get into it. Today’s guest that I wish I could interview if he were still alive today is William J Morse, considered by many to be the father of the U.S. soybean industry. When William graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s of science in agriculture in 1907 he started his job two days later at the age of 24 with the US Department of Agriculture He was hired as an Agrostologist. That’s a term I don’t think is used too much any more, but agrostology is the study of grasses. Which is a little odd because he would end up studying soybeans, not a grass at all. Whether he knew it or not, but soybeans would be his focus for his entire 42 year career, all at USDA. What’s incredible is during that time, the U.S. soybean industry would grow from an obscure forage crop sparsely grown in parts of the southeast to one of the top three most important cash crops in the country, grown on over 11M acres. Now today that number is over 80 million acres, but the meteoric rise of the soybean during William Morse’s life was just incredible. I try to think of something like that happening today. Think about hemp that had all of that hype, and I think it’s grow today on something like 7k acres in the US, I mean almost nothing. But in one man’s career he saw the birth and growth of a major industry that is one of the most important crops in American agriculture today. How did this happen? What were the catalysts for this growth? What lessons can we pull from this for today’s agriculture and the agriculture we want to see in the future? 

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Tim Hammerich

I share stories about agriculture, agtech, and agribusiness on podcasts and radio.