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In some instances, Virginia growers have had to adapt to the desires of foreign consumers, such as Engel.

The soybeans used for natto are smaller and lighter in color and the Japanese insist that they are free of pesticides and herbicides.

“It just means they have to be on the up and up, good and healthy,” says Engel, who grows on 17,000 acres, much of it leased, stretching from Charlottesville to Smithfield and beyond. “They want no trace of anything coming through it.”

Engel, who has operated Engel Family Farms since 1991, says 70 percent to 80 percent of the soybeans, wheat and barley he grows are exported.

Much of those products, as well as grains from other growers, ultimately end up in Chesapeake at the grain export terminal operated by Perdue Grain and Oil Seed LLC. A fleet of Perdue barges delivers the farm products to the terminal where they are loaded on ocean-going vessels for destinations as diverse as Spain, Morocco and Eastern Europe.

An annual average of 120 to 130 ships sail away from Virginia with their holds laden with agricultural products. Export grains and soybean oil range from 2.35 to 2.5 million metric tons, said John Cassidy, a senior vice president with Perdue Grain.

Cassidy said China’s “insatiable” appetite for soybean products makes it Perdue’s largest market. “They represent over 65 percent of the world trade in soybeans,” he said.

Cassidy and others in the export business often speak with pride of promoting U.S. products on a global scale.

Engel said exports have put a lot of fields back in production.

“We’re getting to produce something and create job and equipment needs and also create revenue for the owners of that property so they can pay their taxes,” he said. “And we get to participate in feeding the world.”


Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at