I was picking blueberries with my Dad last summer when I asked him about “3127”. If anyone knew about this remarkable soybean variety from the 1970’s, it would be him…he was the one who developed it.
In the early 70’s, Dad worked in the agronomy department at the University of Maryland. He was an agronomist who specialized in soybean breeding. This technique involves fertilization of the stamen of a female “parent” plant with the pollen of a male “parent” to produce “children” plants with an optimal combination of traits. Dad sought beans with high yields and environmental robustness. At the U of M, Dad applied breeding techniques, also called “crossing”, with leading public seed varieties of the day–Williams and Essex.
In January 1974, Dad stepped out of the public forum and into the commercial market. He was hired by Asgrow Seed Company to start their soybean breeding program in Ames, Iowa. At Asgrow, Dad continued to cross various soybean varieties with Williams and Essex. He was looking for “children” with demonstrated resiliency. Dad has always placed high priority on “defensive packages” in his soybeans varieties–resistant traits for a variety of diseases including tolerance to iron chlorosis, phytophthora root rot, and cyst nematodes. During that critical evaluation period, an early frost decimated the test plots before most of the “children” could be evaluated. Only one variety remained. Unlike the typical tall and thin soybean plants of the day, this one took on the short and squatty stature of the Essex variety, with multiple branching instead of a single stem. In early field trials, Dad noticed the pods of commercial varieties were shattering and spilling their seeds whereas this new public/private cross did not. He knew he was on to something. It was the beginning of 3127.
In those days, I was an adolescent growing up in central Iowa, playing a little baseball and working at the Asgrow research facility. I was part of crews that would “walk beans”–walking through bean rows with a hoe and hacking weeds. As I walked, I watched the crossers sitting on beach blankets in the field, some wearing elaborate head coverings. The women wore halter tops to catch a few rays. These hearty souls would sit on the soil huddled over the parent rows, moving slowly down the plot, one plant at a time.
Dad poured his heart into bringing 3127 to market. He had test plots scattered throughout the Western Hemisphere to accelerate bean maturation. I could tell my Dad was really into his work. He would travel often to see how his beans were doing. Those were the days before digital cameras. He would often come home with stacks of 4×6 photographs showing row after row of soybeans. They all looked the same to me, but to him, there was something remarkable in every one. My parents have a closet full of photo boxes in their guest room, many of which are pictures of soybean fields in who-knows-where.
3127 inherited hardy traits from Essex, but unlike Essex, it was an indeterminate variety, like most soybeans in the Midwest. Indeterminate varieties like 3127 continue to grow after they produce their first pods. A tremendous advantage of indeterminate plants is their ability to recover after periods of hot and dry weather. When dry weather hits a determinate variety at the peak of its flower and pod production, the plant may abort those pods and lose its productivity. Not so with indeterminates–they keep producing. 3127 thus had an optimal combination of disease tolerance and drought resistance–a combination that promised consistently high yields.
Finally, in 1979, Dad introduced 3127 to the market. Dad hoped farmers would appreciate 3127’s robustness and consistent performance. He was not disappointed.
3127’s performance was stellar, exceeding expectations. In yield trials conducted by the Iowa Soybean Association, 3127 outproduced all of its competitors. Word spread quickly. In a short time, 3127 quickly claimed great sections of the Midwest.
On a blog site called “Ag Talk”, farmers speak of 3127 like it was legend. A Nebraska farmer reminisced of multiple 60-bushel seasons with Asgrow 3127s, suggesting it would be a “struggle to beat that much now.” A Northeast Missouri farmer recalled 3127 was the first private bean introduced in his area, where public seeds like Mitchell and Williams were traditionally planted. When a scourge of charcoal rot infected everybody’s beans, the public beans made less than 10 bushels per acre while the 3127’s made over 30. The farmer quipped, “probably the last year we planted the public varieties here.” Word got around. In the years that followed, this same farmer suggested that 50% of the fields with private beans in his area grew 3127. By the 1980’s, Asgrow was the second leading soybean retailer with 12% of the market share , a statistic that understated 3127’s dominance. It is not too far of a stretch to say about one in every five of the Group 3 farms in the Midwest were growing my dad’s seeds.
3127 has been called “one of the most significant advances in the seed business ” and “one of the great varieties for its day and of all time.”  As author Dan Charles writes, “rarely is a new variety so clearly superior to all its rivals.” 3127’s success elevated dad to world-renowned status.
In the 1990’s, 3127 took a backseat to genetically-modified Roundup Ready varieties. Yet the legacy of 3127 continued. Of the 494 soybean varieties (“cultivars”) registered between 1999 and 2008, 23% contain the germplasm of 3127 . When farmers talk of the genetic makeup of today’s beans, they still refer to 3127 with high regard, praising varieties that contained 3127 traits. Many say today’s Roundup Ready beans don’t produce like 3127 did. A farmer from West Central Illinois on Ag Talk asks, “Does anybody remember planting Asgrow 3127 beans in the mid-80’s? The farm I was working on at the time had consistent 60-70 bushel yields…seems to me yields dropped about 5-10 bushels with Roundup Ready seed. Consistency is still there just lower.”
The ethical debate over GMO soybeans like the Roundup Ready variety rages throughout the world. Dad has the distinction of being an innovator and an advocate of both sides of that debate. But that’s another story. The success of 3127 is a testament of my dad’s main goal — to bring better products to the farmer. Men like him are a rare breed in an era where modern industry and academia downplay the value of plant breeding. We may never see another breakthrough like 3127 in the 70s and 80s. I’m thankful to know the man who inspired it.
- “History of Soybeans and Soyfood”, William Shurtleff, Akiko Aoyagi, 2009
- Dan Charles, “Lords of the Harvest”, Perseus Publishing, © 2001
- Indiana Prairie Farmer, 2009
- “Genetic Diversity and Agronomic Improvement of North American Soybean Germplasm”, Mikel, Diers, Nelson, and Smith.