Dave Martin isn’t bothered by picky eaters. For his business and a number of people in his Ohio community they represent a growing opportunity.
“Our customers are very particular,” acknowledged Martin, president of Bluegrass Farms of Ohio in Jeffersonville. Never mind that they are also halfway around the world.
“Sixty-seven percent of the world population is Asian, and generally their source of protein is vegetable protein, soy primarily. That’s a good market for people in the soybean business,” he said.
That’s where Bluegrass Farms comes in. The facility sorts, cleans and packages soybeans, delivered by local farmers, in accordance with strict specifications.
“Without our facility this process would be done overseas. We are bringing those jobs back, and bringing them here to Ohio,” said Martin. “We employ 18 people who work very hard and take their earnings and spend it in the community.”
Much of that hard work is aimed at complying with his customers’ culinary and cultural demands. And that starts with the seed.
What customers want
“We make sure that the seed is pure, and when I say pure I mean that the variety has been selected for that particular food group, whether it be soymilk or tofu,” he said. “It’s selected for that food and we keep it separate and we make sure that grain goes to the companies making those products.”
But what originally led Bluegrass Farms down this path was the development of grain crops that were genetically modified to have traits desirable to farmers such as resistance to pests.
“It created a fork in the road,” said Martin.
While genetically modified (GM) crops were readily adopted by many farmers and have been used in America for years, Bluegrass Farms decided to stick with nonGM seed. But because farmers’ costs were lowered with GM alternatives, Bluegrass Farms needed to get a premium to stay competitive.
The company conducted a research project that took several years. It identified markets that wanted nonGM grains and were willing to pay more for them.
Bluegrass made its first sale to Asia in 2003 and then built its processing facility in 2007. Demand for its nonGM soybeans grew and led to contracting with local farmers to increase their supply. Bluegrass now contracts with more than 50 farmers, in about a 50-mile radius of the Jeffersonville facilities.
“It was the best thing that we ever did,” Martin said of pursuing markets abroad.
Good enough to eat
Today, Bluegrass Farms’ processing facility consists of the latest food grade technology and high speed packaging. In all, the facility will process about 735,000 bushels of soybeans.
While typically the soybeans grown in Ohio are processed to make livestock feed and products such as lubricants and biofuels, Martin points out that his company’s soybeans are headed for consumers’ plates.
“We take what the farmers produce and sort out the impurities. We don’t change it, we don’t alter it, we just get rid of the moldy kernels, discolored kernels, stones,” Martin said. “We also take cleaning to a new dimension. We don’t just clean it so it is good enough for seed; we clean it so it is good enough for food. There is no dust, no dirt, it’s clean and it’s ready to eat, making it a product that you can eat and feel safe.”
After the soybeans have been sorted, cleaned and packaged they are shipped to the customer.
“Most of the time it’s the cheapest, but sometimes they like to pay a little more for different shipment methods. Every customer is different, but as you lower the costs of shipment, buyers can buy more grain and the farmer receives a higher premium,” he said.
The ability to access markets through trade brings money back to Ohio, where farmers can spend it locally, Martin said. Bluegrass Farms generates millions of dollars for the community through premiums on crops and its workers’ salaries. And the company is poised to continue expanding, as it finalized a contract to provide 20,000 acres of soybeans to South Korea.
“This is an opportunity to give the farmers a larger share of what they deserve of the food market. As we grow, we can create more jobs,” Martin said.