An important cash crop widely grown in South Carolina, soybeans were first cultivated as a soil builder and animal fodder. Farmers simply broadcast the seeds and turned livestock into the fields to forage. In the early twentieth century, however, the famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver discovered the high oil and protein content of soybeans and thus the crop’s greater market value. Recognizing the crop’s potential to free the state’s farmers from “King Cotton,” the agriculturalist John Edward Wannamaker worked to develop soybean varieties that would thrive in South Carolina.
Soybeans became a cash crop in South Carolina in the late 1940s. Farmers liked the crop’s low fertilizer requirements, soil-building character, and market strength. Moreover, soybeans are a good rotational crop and thus a good fit in both cotton and tobacco cultures. Beans could be planted in spring or early summer and harvested from October to December. The advent of reliable harvesting combines hastened the spread of soybean culture. As the crop could be planted, cultivated, and harvested entirely by machine, labor requirements were few. Low production costs coupled with increasing demand for a broad range of soy products afforded dependable profits for growers. By the early 1960s soybeans were an important part of the state’s agricultural economy. In some areas soybean acreage superseded cotton acreage.
South Carolina soybean production peaked in 1982 at 1.8 million acres. But rising costs of fuel, fertilizer, and equipment squeezed soy profits, while competing culture areas in the Midwest softened demand. Added to these trends was the declining real value of soybeans. In 2000 soybeans sold for about half their 1982 inflation-adjusted price. By the end of the twentieth century South Carolina soybean production had fallen to about 450,000 acres worth about $48 million to growers and ranked tenth in cash value to South Carolina farmers.
Fite, Gilbert C. Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865–1980. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.
Kirby, Jack Temple. Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920–1960. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.