Talk Explores History of Soybean Farming

OAC developed soybeans for Ontario agriculture

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PhD student Patricia Bowley says growing food is the thread running through rural life that links families and communities.

Remember when Rozanski Hall was a horse barn and Alumni House was home to a flock of sheep? PhD student Patricia Bowley does. She grew up in Guelph, and when she was a child, her parents would often bring her to the campus, where she developed a lasting interest in agriculture and rural life.

She’ll share some of her research and insights during a presentation on Tuesday, Feb. 7, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., entitled “Soybeans and Ontario Crop Agriculture, 1880s-1970s: Responding to a Century of Challenges on the Farm.” Bowley’s is the second talk in this year’s Rural History Roundtable, and will be held in the OAC Boardroom (Johnston Hall, Room 104).

The talk blends both history and an understanding of the science and technology behind the development of crops.  “It’s where arts and sciences meet,” Bowley says.

In her presentation, Bowley will cover almost a century of soybean farming in Ontario.

She hopes to emphasize the value of the farm and the farmer. Bowley earned a master’s in crop physiology at the University of Manitoba, and still remembers with a touch of resentment the lack of respect given the “aggies” there. “This is the most basic applied skill we can have – growing food. It’s the thread running through rural life and linking families and community. It’s very central. People don’t recognize the skills needed to farm and how important it is.”

Those memories are part of what sparked her desire to understand the history of agriculture and share it with others in a meaningful way.

After graduation, Bowley returned to Ontario and worked as a lab demonstrator and research associate for several years, then enrolled in school again to earn a master’s in history. During that time, she also did freelance writing for the Ontario Farmer and later Canadian Antique Power, as well as an American publication called simply Antique Power. Next she began teaching with Scientists in School, a program she’s extremely enthusiastic about: “It’s very hands-on, very applied, and a great way to help kids learn.”

Wanting to explore her interests in greater depth, Bowley then completed a third master’s at the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Even there, she says, agriculture didn’t get the respect she feels it deserves; Bowley was the only person working on an agricultural topic for her research. With her new master’s in hand, she returned to U of G to begin her PhD.

She explores the history of soybean agriculture in Ontario with three themes: the science and technology involved; the economics of marketing and production; and the social side of soybean farming. “A lot of the research material is here at the U of G, in the archives,” she adds. “I have gone through the typed reports of Charles Zavitz, for example. OAC, one of the original colleges making up the U of G, is where soybeans were actually developed for growing in Ontario.”

The first soybeans to be grown in this part of Canada, she explains, were planted in 1883. Later, seeds were brought to Zavitz from Japan. Although the beans were being used as food in Japan, the Canadian growing season wasn’t long enough to allow the soybeans to mature, so they were used as a hay and silage crop.

Zavitz began working with a group of farmers who called themselves the Ontario Agricultural and Experimental Union, providing them with seeds to grow on their properties and carefully tracking the results. These reports showed that by 1925, Zavitz had come up with a single variety of soybeans that would grow well in Ontario, called OAC 211.

Still, soybeans were a very minor crop at this time. “There were a lot of other things going on  in southern Ontario at the same time,” says Bowley. “Alfalfa, sugar beets, tobacco and corn were all becoming popular, and soybeans were really peripheral.” Soybeans were less reliable than other crops.

By 1936, though, Bowley says there was a soybean conference in Ottawa, and soy’s increasing popularity in the U.S. was demonstrating its possibilities to Canadian farmers. It became a more widely-grown crop starting in the mid-50s, and most of the varieties grown had their start at OAC. Soon soy was being used in many forms: as oil, as food and as an ingredient in industrial plastics.

Bowley says that at first it surprised her that this useful crop took so long to really catch on, but looking back, she finds it makes sense. “The 1920s were a time when a lot was going on – the Depression, terrible weather – and most farmers were just getting by, not wanting to try something new. But the stage was set, and once the economy improved, farmers began adding soybeans to the mix.”

What interests Bowley are the farm families and others who were such a crucial part of the history of soybeans in Ontario. “It’s a complicated story, and not always a straightforward one,” she says. “But it’s a good story.”