Japanese consumers may be pickier than anyone when it comes to soybeans. They can get downright finicky about soybean taste and texture.

But some Southern farmers are trying to turn this to their profit advantage, growing new varieties specifically for the Japanese market. Natto, in particular, a soybean product the Japanese eat with white rice for breakfast, interests farmers and soybean breeders.

A few Virginia and South Carolina farmers already are producing for that market. North Carolinians may be right there with them before long, said Myron Fountain, director of North Carolina Foundation Seed Producers, Inc., Zebulon, N.C., at the Southeast Vegetable and Fruit/AgTech 2000 Expo in Greensboro, N.C.

Fountain is one of a group of North Carolinians working a year now on a project to sell specialty soybeans to Japan. "North Carolina has a good opportunity in Japan. One reason is because of the Midwest drought in 1999. The Japanese trading companies realized they needed to get soybeans from a larger area. So they went to Canada, to Virginia and South Carolina," he says.

Now they're also interested in North Carolina, and the state's soybean leaders are trying to make the most of it. "The natto trading companies like having that niche of being the exclusive user of a new variety. We're establishing critical relationships with them. The state department of agriculture and the American Soybean Association Japan office are helping us," Fountain says.

The U.S. remains Japan's top supplier of natto soybeans. In 1999, the total market was 130,000 metric tons. The U.S. provided 78,000 metric tons of that, with China selling 19,500 and Canada 13,000. Japan itself grew 19,500 metric tons of natto soybeans that year.

Dealing with Japanese buyers is quite a bit different from selling commodity soybeans to Americans. "Relationships are very important. You have to invest time and be persistent. You have to have the respect of that customer," he says.

Fountain is now working with nine Japanese companies to arrange the best situation for North Carolina farmers. "The Japanese don't like that. They like to have an exclusive arrangement. But I've got to reduce my risk," he says.

North Carolina Foundation Seed Producers has two natto soybean varieties available for the 2001 season. N7101, a maturity group VII soybean, on average yields about 20 percent less than conventional varieties. N7103 averages just five percent less than conventional varieties.

Both varieties come from conventional breeding programs. The Japanese demand that all soybeans be non-genetically modified.

"This means you've got to consider your herbicide programs, and the ease of growing Roundup Ready soybeans, when determining if natto soybeans are right for your farm.

"You can grow these varieties in seven-to-14 inch rows and they'll do good," he says.

You'll also need a considerably better price for natto soybeans. Fountain says it'll cost at least 50 cents a bushel to identity-preserve the natto beans and clean Roundup Ready soybeans from harvesting systems. Add another 65 cents for cleaning costs and what he terms "take-out", beans rejected due to quality problems. Natto soybeans must be bagged and he puts that cost at $1.50 per bushel.

"So the farmer needs at least $8.65 per bushel to equal conventional beans, at current prices. You have to ask, `can I get that amount?' If you can't, you might as well grow regular beans for the market," he says.

Quality remains the number one concern for natto soybeans. "You're going to have to monitor those fields more than regular bean fields. These are soybeans for food. They've got to be excellent quality," he says.

After a year of studying the possibilities, Fountain likes North Carolina's potential as a natto soybean producer. "There's generally already enough identity preserved processing equipment in the state. And we can be competitive on transportation with what they're getting out of the Midwest," he says.

Shipping is best from January through April when temperature is fairly cool over the whole route to Japan. "That's best to maintain taste, and taste is what's important to the Japanese," Fountain says.

In addition to natto soybeans, North Carolina this year has some new soybean varieties available for the tofu market. Other soybeans coming on include low saturated fat/low linolenic varieties, along with a high protein variety. Researchers are working on low saturated fat/low linolenic/high oleic varieties.

"This is funded by the United Soybean Board, and one of these low saturated fat/low linolenic varieties could hit the market this year. ADM is testing it. It'll be identity-preserved and Europe will be the first market for it. Hopefully, it'll become widespread and will be the commodity soybean. The high oleic part is yet to be worked into it, but North Carolina State University is working hard on that," Fountain says.

THE QUESTION, "U.S. agriculture and who really gives a hoot?" will serve as the theme for the 54th annual Southern Agribusiness forum on Feb. 9 at the Doubletree Hotel in New Orleans.

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, (R-Miss.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development and Related Agencies, has been invited to give the keynote speech. His address will focus on the role of future legislation in governing agriculture in the public interest.

According to Charley Richard, chairman of the Forum, the question of who cares about agriculture often is asked by agricultural producers and processors of food and fiber products as they struggle to remain viable in today's global marketplace.

This year's forum, co-sponsored by Agribusiness councils of New Orleans, Monroe, La., Jackson, Miss., and Memphis, as well as the Louisiana State University AgCenter, will attempt to answer this question.

Richard said discussions during the forum will include viewpoints from agricultural producers as well as the public sector on such issues as environmental regulations and the use of genetically modified plants and animals.

"Speakers will attempt to provide the most up-to-date information on food and fiber production issues that affect far more than just farmers," said LSU AgCenter Agent Chet Johnson, who is working with planners of the forum.

After all, everyone has a stake in the most efficient production of everything from the food we eat to the fiber for our clothing and the lumber for our houses," he said.

Richard also said the final session of the forum will concentrate on the challenges presented to agriculture in getting its message to the media.

For further information about the forum, contact Chet Johnson at (504) 482-1107 or Pat Jordan, president of the New Orleans Agribusiness Council at (504) 286-4212.