MARYSVILLE, Ohio-Honda Motor Co. expects to set an export record this year - in the soybeans it returns to Japan in containers that arrived with instrument dials, transmission gears and other spare parts.
In the shadow of its auto plant, the company every hour processes 550 bushels of soybeans that end up as tofu and soy sauce.
The automaker, which expects to sell a record 1 million bushels this year, is looking for markets in Australia and says potential customers in Europe and Thailand have expressed interest in shipments of the crop.
Honda began shipping soybeans in 1986 as a way to reuse cargo containers that were returning to Japan empty. The crop was plentiful in Ohio, there was a market for them in Japan, and the shipments were a way for the automaker to invest in a state it has operated in since 1983.
Between 250 and 280 farmers grow the soybeans for Honda on 32,000 acres (12,800 hectares) in Ohio and Michigan. The region produces soybeans that are especially high in protein, a quality desired by Honda's Japanese customers because soybeans are a substitute for meat.
The growers are paid as much as $1.10 (86 euro cents) more a bushel than the $6.15 (?4.8) they would get on the open market.
Some of the soybeans are grown on Honda property, including in the infield of an auto test track.
At the 18-employee processing plant, pods, stems and weed seed are removed and the soybeans are cleaned, separated by size and shape and polished.
A $1 million (?780,000) dust-collection system keeps soybean dust from migrating to Honda's nearby paint plant, where Accords are painted in colors such as Desert Mist, Satin Silver and Nighthawk Black.
"It's like a vacuum sweeper with a 75-horsepower motor on it," said Joe Hanusik, manager of the processing plant. "It would clean your house in about 15 seconds."
Once processed, the soybeans are shot into 66-pound (30-kilogram) bags. A robotic arm plucks each bag from the conveyor belt, wheels around and gently stacks the bags on wooden pallets.
Honda exports the soybeans - along with auto parts, aluminum and steel - under Honda Trading America, a subsidiary founded in 1972. HTA had $2 billion (now ?1.56 billion) in gross revenues last year, up from $1.3 billion five years ago.
Honda was the first Japanese automaker to make cars in the United States, opening its first plant in central Ohio. The company also has plants in Alabama and North and South Carolina. It exports soybeans only from the Marysville plant.
Honda's production in the United States includes the Accord, Civic, Acura TL and other vehicles, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and engines.
The automaker got its start in the soybean business in the mid-1980s following a chance meeting at an airport between Honda executive Hitochi Morimoto and a Japanese soybean supplier who was looking to expand the export of U.S. soybeans to Japan. Morimoto set up the business and later became president of Honda's soybean-exporting business.
Toyota fills its containers bound for Japan with brake pads, electronic sensors, door locks and other auto parts it makes in the U.S. Last year, the company shipped back $1.8 billion (?1.4 billion) in parts.
Other automakers have stepped outside their core business when opportunities arose.
General Motors Corp. disposes of used sand from its foundries by selling it to make concrete in building roads. The company also sells sludge generated from the paint process at its assembly plants for use in making plastics for park benches and playground equipment.
At first, Hanusik's family run business, Madison Seed Co., processed soybeans for Honda in modest amounts. He now processes soybeans exclusively for the automaker, doing about twice the business of the seed company, which since has been sold.
Honda built its processing plant in 1999. It shipped between 750,000 and 800,000 bushels of soybeans in 2004 and had $10 million (?7.8 million) in soybean sales from March 2004 and March 2005. That compares with $20 billion (?15.6 billion) in auto-related sales for Honda in just the last three months of 2004.