Canadian soybean producer targets health-conscious consumers
March 17, 2010— Inkerman, Ontario
As consumers grow increasingly conscious of the effects of diet on their health, one Ontario soybean farmer is cashing in on their concerns.
David Hendrick, 60, has been a grain farmer in Inkerman, Ontario, south of Ottawa, for 20 years, along with his wife, Carolyn. But in 1993, after leaving his job as a senior manager at Agriculture Canada, he had the opportunity to start a soybean export business to Japan. He jumped at the chance.
"The Japanese impressed me in terms of their values, culture, demeanour and business practices," says Hendrick, who often met visiting Japanese dignitaries in his job at Agriculture Canada. "I always had it in the back of my head that if I had an opportunity to get this going, I'd love to do it."
The Hendricks began exporting the organic soy beans they grew to Japan, where consumers use them to produce tofu products, including miso and soy milk. With the help of partner Taro Takatsuta, they identified Japanese companies keen to acquire high-quality organic soy beans and seeds for food products.
Canada's image of pristine water, blue skies and snowy mountaintops appeals to the Japanese, says Hendrick. Because they import close to 90 percent of what they eat, and rely on soy as a major source of protein, "they want 100 percent, non-genetically modified, traditionally grown soybeans. That's the program we have," Hendrick says.
Over the past 12 years, the Hendricks have worked with the same core group of five companies they identified on their first trip to Japan. This year, they will ship 50,000 tonnes of soybeans to Japan, grown on their own farm and the farms of 150 other growers with whom they have contracts.
But Hendrick was not content to export ordinary soybeans. In concert with Jagdish Kumar, a plant breeder, and technician Richard German, he is developing a new line of soy beans that is rich in isoflavones – a natural estrogen-like compound that acts as an anti-cancer agent.
"I was convinced that if we were going to be meaningful to the buyers in Japan, we needed to continuously improve the quality of the soybeans," Hendrick says. "By consuming soybeans that have higher levels of isoflavones, the consumer raises his level of resistance to cancer."
Hendrick knew that running a research program on a small family farm would require more resources than he had, however. So he turned to the National Research Council of Canada's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP). Through NRC-IRAP, Hendrick was able to pay the salaries of Kumar and research technicians. He also had the funds to test the new lines of soybeans at McGill University laboratories.
"It gave us the wherewithal to continue our research program, to expand our varieties and to move closer to commercialization," Hendrick says of the NRC-IRAP support he received.
The NRC-IRAP contribution also enabled Hendrick Seeds to network with other soybean breeders around the world, and to work with a Japanese soybean breeder who has helped the company advance its work.
"In terms of dollars, it was critical," Hendrick says of the NRC-IRAP support. "But along with that, and maybe even more importantly, we got lucky. We got a good industrial technology advisor (ITA)."
Hendrick's ITA, Bob Reichert, helped the company set targets and focus on what it had to do to achieve them.
"There's nothing like a little support to keep you going," Hendrick says.
Today, Hendrick Seeds is within two years of commercializing its new soybean lines, and has grown from a company of two – Carolyn and David Hendrick – to one that employs 22 people. Its sales have increased to a projected US$29.6 million in 2010, up from US $4.1 million in 2004. David Hendrick believes they are poised to create a breakthrough product that will sell not only in Japan, but in Europe, and, eventually, in Canada.
"NRC-IRAP support was crucial to the initiation of soybean research at Hendrick Seeds," Hendrick says. "This national program raised the profile of the corporation nationally and internationally. The research to raise the soybean profile as a neutraceutical is here to stay."
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