The soybean industry is realizing a profound period of investment and growth. As demand grows for low carbon fuels, including renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel made from feedstocks like soybean oil, new soybean crushing plants are opening or are under construction in North Dakota and South Dakota, while expansion is taking place at existing plants in Minnesota.
“At last count, I believe there are 11 new plants nationwide that should be operating by 2026,” says Mike Youngerberg, senior director of product development for Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council (MSR&PC). Two of the new plants will be in North Dakota and one in South Dakota.
The thirst for soybean oil may be driving processing growth, but oil is just one component produced by soy crushing. The added crush capacity means there will also be a larger influx of soybean meal available to the market, a situation that has not gone unnoticed.
“We recognize that we’re going to have a huge amount of meal that we’re going to have to do something with,” Youngerberg says. “We can certainly export some, but here at home, all the pigs, chickens and soy-based foods aren’t going to take up that kind of volume. We need to look at avenues beyond our livestock markets and at other opportunities that didn’t present themselves previously.”
One promising opportunity is the area of lawn, turf and garden fertilizer. The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) worked with leaders at MSR&PC to further explore the potential for developing blended fertilizers using high percentages of soybean meal.
Greener Pastures (and Lawns)
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-National Agricultural Statistics Service, Americans spend about $604 million each year on lawn and garden fertilizer. An increasing number of consumers and businesses want products that are environmentally friendly, yet effective.
That combination of factors lends itself to soybean meal’s strengths.
AURI connected with AminOrganiX, a Bloomington-based company that produces and distributes organic fertilizer. Its products – made in Stewart, Minnesota and Wisconsin – are used on more than 90 golf courses in the Southeastern United States, including six of Florida’s top 10 courses.
“Golf course managers are pretty exacting customers,” says Mike Reiber, AminOrganiX CEO. “They know what they like, and they know what they don’t like.”
AminOrganiX ships hundreds of tons of granular fertilizer to the Southeastern U.S. each year for golf course use. It also provides fertilizer for crops in the southeast U.S. region, including peanuts, strawberries, corn, squash and cucumbers.
AminOrganiX developed two higher soy content formulations, a 7-1-7 (7% nitrogen 1% phosphorous 7% potassium) blend and a 16-0-8 (16% nitrogen 0% phosphorous 8% potassium) formula. Both contain 50% soybean meal.
According to Reiber, there’s no other natural formulated fertilizer that has anywhere near that quantity of soybean meal.
To illustrate the products’ performance, three Minnesota entities utilized the new fertilizer blends on their sites. “The fertilizer performed well in the area tested and was both easy to apply and spread,” notes Shannon Boen, grounds and road maintenance coordinator at Northland Community & Technical College. “Rain occurred when needed to provide a good read on the fertilizer performance. I mowed the grass weekly and it looked very nice. The 16-0-8 blend went on heavier and produced a thick turf with a lush green appearance. There also seemed to be fewer weeds in that area–healthier turf means less weeds!”
“Homeowners across America and the people who are administering publicly owned grounds are looking for alternatives to chemical fertilizers,” explains Reiber. “The alternative products they currently have are not fast acting. Our formulations produce much faster in the soil because they feed the soil microbes.”
Reiber says there is a resurgence in research in the lawn and turf realm around the impact of amino acids on plants. Amino acids are growth stimulants which help plants grow deep roots, which support strong, overall plant health. Because soybean meal is a good source of amino acids and a non-chemical ingredient, there is even more potential for soy-based fertilizers.
“It’s hot right now and we’re right in the center of it,” Reiber says. “That’s a good thing for us and for soy. You’ve got these amino acids in soy meal, which is why it’s used as animal feed. Instead of just feeding animals, we’re feeding plants because they also benefit from those amino acids. Our fertilizers are all about nourishing the soil and using amino acid forms of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.”
AURI Business and Industry Development Director Harold Stanislawski and Project Manager Becky Philipp worked with the Minnesota maintenance departments at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Northland Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls and the Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls to illustrate the AminOrganiX fertilizer performance. Two applications of granular fertilizer were made during the spring and summer of 2023.
The Willmar and Fergus Falls locations received very little rain during the year, limiting the fertilizers’ impact, while the Thief River Falls location experienced near normal precipitation.
“The soy fertilizer [used at Thief River Falls] made the grass look a lot healthier and greener as it progressed through the season,” Philipp says.
An Opening Door
Organic fertilizer sales are slated to grow at 5.8% in the U.S. due to increased Gen Z participation in gardening activities and increased public awareness of organic fertilizers. Currently, organic lawn and garden product sales in the United States are about $3.3 billion annually.
“There is a place for soybean meal fertilizers in the marketplace,” Stanislawski contends. “When you look at the cost per pound of nutrition to the plant, these formulations are right there with other natural fertilizers in the marketplace.”
“Finding new applications for soybean meal as an ingredient for fertilizer helps expand product usage through a new market channel, but also addresses the increasing demand for organic forms of fertilizer compared to conventional fertilizers,” says AURI Senior Scientist for Coproducts Alan Doering. “Soybean meal fertilizer blends provide a natural slow-release fertilizer and are a good alternative for lawns and landscape adjacent to lakes, streams or water tributaries.”
The successful development of blends utilizing higher percentages of soybean meal is just the beginning of AURI’s work in the fertilizer field. Work will continue on the development of fertilizers with higher blend percentages for a spring boost as well as blends that utilize other agricultural products or coproducts.
Stanislawski says another key step in increasing the use of soy meal as fertilizer is by understanding the value chain constraints of soy-based fertilizer products.
“The Soybean Council funded phase two of this project, which will explore the value chain of how we can get this into the marketplace in greater Minnesota through farm cooperative stores, distribution centers and related stores,” Stanislawski explains. “We think there’s going to be a lot of consumer interest in these kinds of products because they’re natural.”
Discussions have already taken place with a Minnesota-based enterprise interested in marketing and distributing the soy-based fertilizers.
Stanislawski says the effort to help develop new markets for soybean meal as fertilizer has been particularly rewarding.
“We have a plant that manufactures soybean meal in Minnesota, we have companies that have ingredients for mixing fertilizer, and on top of that, those companies are interested in helping develop the value chain,” Stanislawski notes. “I don’t work on very many projects that have that three-legged stool right off the bat.”
Youngerberg adds that the process of transitioning from an idea to a developed product with market potential has moved very quickly.
“It certainly came together fast which gets us ahead of the game. That’s a good thing,” Youngerberg explains. “People have used soybean meal or corn gluten meal for various fertility purposes in years past, but I think this is the first effort at really targeting a market that’s looking for a product that meets the goal of sustainability and is something consumers can feel good about using. It’s also one of those rare projects where we already have a distributor very interested in this kind of product.”
Reiber believes there is strong potential for natural fertilizers that contain higher percentages of soy.
“There is significant opportunity for soy-based fertilizer, particularly when we involve the agricultural community in this. It’s not only the producer associations, but also the agrochemical distributors and their retail formats. It’s the people who want to support alternative uses for soybeans,” Reiber states. “It’s a really good fit.”