COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The last three decades of Ohio soybean production have been good ones -- marked by improved Phytophthora cultivars, a new market for tofu soybeans, and one of the most popular soybean varieties ever grown in Ohio.
Producers have the Ohio State University soybean breeding program, under the leadership of Steve St. Martin, to thank. Now, St. Martin will pass the torch to a new faculty member to carry on the program's successes.
The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center soybean breeder, who has headed the soybean breeding program since 1991, will retire on Jan. 1, 2009. St. Martin has led in developing over 20 soybean cultivars, a half-dozen of which have gone to commercialization, and a handful more which have helped shape Ohio's second most popular crop into a thriving $1.3 billion industry. But, he says, it's time to move on.
"I tell people that it's been a good gig. I joke that 2008 has been the most enjoyable and unstressful year of my professional life because it's my last," said St. Martin. "I always wanted to have a career in agriculture and I did and it was very good. I've worked with fantastic colleagues, but now I'm moving on and doing something different."
St. Martin grew up in a suburban Minnesota community, graduating from a high school where agriculture was not the career most students pursued. But for St. Martin, soybeans were more of a passion, rather than an interest.
"I was always interested in plants and I thought soybeans were intriguing as a legume because of their wonderful nitrogen independence. I guess it was then that my passion for breeding bloomed and by my 20s, I was trying my hand at breeding soybeans in my backyard," said St. Martin. "People have always said this to me and now I believe it to be true, that talent is good, but when you have a passion for something, it'll take you farther than that talent will."
St. Martin received his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Minnesota, received another master's at the University of Nebraska and finished up his graduate career with a Ph.D. at Iowa State University. He landed an assistant professor position in agronomy at Ohio State University and began dabbling in soybean breeding work. After the previous soybean breeder left the university, he became program leader.
"We've had some successes and probably even more failures. You are always faced with challenges, from technology to the weather, and we still haven't figured out what will make a variety successful in the marketplace," said St. Martin. "But, with the aid of my colleagues, we went into the program knowing was what important to producers and to the industry and we went about developing the best varieties we could with germplasm that was easily accessible."
Expanding the germplasm base for improved field production, specifically yields, has been at the heart of the OARDC soybean breeding program.
"Thirty years ago, you didn't have the soybean varieties that we have today that yield well and resist diseases. If you planted an older cultivar today, you'd immediately be able to tell the differences from the standpoint of disease resistance and productivity," said St. Martin. "Improving germplasm has always been and still is a major focus of soybean breeding."
Disease resistance, especially to Phytophthora, has been a priority for St. Martin.
"The plant pathology department is a real strength at OSU and something the program is honored to hang its hat on from a breeding sense," said St. Martin. "From the very beginning we realized the importance of developing disease-resistant varieties and it's something we still actively pursue today. The pathogen adapts and overcomes resistance fairly easily. We've spent 20 years in search of new sources of resistance and now we have a bunch of them."
Developing a market for food-grade soybeans has also been of particular interest to St. Martin.
"There has always been a strong interest in export markets for soy foods, especially from Japan. And they seem to prefer soybeans from Ohio, perhaps because of the naturally high protein content of the varieties grown," said St. Martin. "Back in the '80s, we started working on tofu soybean varieties specifically for this market, and it remains an important part of what we do today."
Some of the successful soybean varieties developed and commercialized through the OARDC soybean breeding program include:
• Resnik -- Released in 1987, Resnik was probably the most popular soybean variety ever grown in Ohio. "For a time, nearly one-third of all soybean acres were planted with Resnik," said St. Martin. "Its popularity peaked in the early 1990s."
• Ohio FG1 -- The first tofu soybean variety developed, Ohio FG1 was released in 1994 and is still widely used for export markets. "Ohio FG1 brought a lot of Ohio producers into the business of selling tofu soybeans to Japanese customers," said St. Martin. Since then, the breeding program has developed and released new tofu soybean varieties: Ohio FG3, Ohio FG4, and Ohio FG5. Soyfood production varieties Ohio FG4 and Ohio FG5 have been adopted by several growers. Additionally, OARDC research has revealed that Ohio FG5 is high in sucrose content, which has led at least one soyfood manufacturer to adopt the variety.
• Dilworth -- A conventional variety, Dilworth seed contributed $150,000 to Ohio growers in its sales during 2004 and 2005, based on a $5 per bushel soybean price and a 1.5 bushel per acre advantage over the average conventional variety.
• Kottman -- A popular conventional variety, Kottman has high yield potential. Released in 1999, Kottman contributes about $300,000 per year to producers' revenue. Dennison, released in 2006, is expected to eventually replace Kottman as the top-yielding Ohio soybean variety.
St. Martin is happy to see such varieties reach such popularity status with producers, but he is most proud of his contributions to a little-known variety called HS93-4118.
"The variety didn't catch on in Ohio, but it's done very well regionally and many breeders in other states have used it to develop their own varieties," said St. Martin. "Varieties have a very short life, but the stream of germplasm that flows from one variety to the next always remains. If you check back in 100 years, this variety is the one that has the best chances of carrying on, of future varieties maintaining that pedigree. And I can say, 'Hey, I worked on that'".
Though St. Martin is ending his career, the program won't be leaving with him. The OARDC soybean breeding program has been expanding over the past several years, thanks in part to continued collaborations with industry, such as the Ohio Soybean Council and the Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center (OBIC). Because of improved technology and increases in the number of test plots throughout Ohio, the soybean breeding program has been successful in releasing 13 soybean varieties over the past five years.
"With the support from OSC and with OBIC coming into play over the past three to four years, we don't see the program shutting down anytime soon," said St. Martin. Breeding is a concrete contribution. You can sit here and write a journal article, but when you show someone a bag of soybeans they can grow, you are clearly doing something that is beneficial."
St. Martin hopes to stay on in an advisory capacity, but he's looking ahead to traveling and writing a novel based on 19th century America he's had his heart set on for quite some time. So will he write soybeans into his book?
"Nope. I'm leaving soybeans out of this," said St. Martin. "The second rule of show business is to leave them wanting more. The first rule, of course, is that the show must go on."
St. Martin recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Ohio Soybean Council for his dedication to soybean research and development projects for the betterment of Ohio's soybean industry.
The OARDC soybean breeding program has been in existence since 1977, and since that time has released 50 soybean varieties.