CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) _ Soybean growers hope to widen consumption of the versatile bean with the development of a new soynut butter that looks like peanut butter but has flavors all its own.

''There will be some resistance because everybody is used to peanut butter, but we will ease into the market,'' said Leonard Stuttman, owner of the Inari Trading Co., a small Michigan concern that makes soybean products.

''We want to be known as the Carters of the soynut business,'' he said, referring to former President Jimmy Carter, whose reputation as a peanut farmer followed him to the White House.

Inari is beginning to offer its soynut butter in bulk to health food stores, food cooperatives and specialty markets.

Already one producer uses soynut butter as the basis for a snack bar and a country club chef uses it to make a gourmet soup, Stuttman said.

Soynut butter will not be available in retail-size jars and is not viewed as a threat to Skippy or Jif.

''We're not afraid of it - peanut butter is an American way of life,'' said Perry Russ, president of the National Peanut Council. ''But if it has a major impact, then certainly we'd be concerned - any business is concerned about competition.''

Inari offers its soynut butter in several forms, including a basic spread that resembles peanut butter but lacks its strong taste.

If consumers find that too bland, there is soynut butter with sesame, chocolate-like carob chips, or with pear or apple sweetening, somewhat like peanut butter-and-jelly rolled into one spread.

''We've found that there is a strong consumer preference for soynut butter that is sweetened,'' said Stuttman. ''We've had some fun with it.''

Charles Stein, a professor of food science at Michigan State University, helped Stuttman overcome some technical problems in producing soynut butter and said Inari might be the only company offering it.

''I think the product is quite good now,'' said Stein. ''When you take a look at the almost unbelievable success of peanut butter, if he could get a couple of percent of that market, it would be significant.''

Americans paid $700 million last year for 600 million pounds of peanut butter.

Stuttman believes his soynut butter will appeal to people who are allergic to peanuts, want a flavor in their spread or want to help soybean farmers.

The supply of soybeans is far larger and more stable than peanuts, and the price often is lower, said Stuttman. This year, U.S. growers are expected to harvest 120 billion pounds of soybeans, compared with a peanut harvest of just 4 billion pounds.

Stein said soynut butter is nutritionally similar to peanut butter. The price is expected to be about the same, so he said the new product will have to rely somewhat on what he called ''the mystique of the soybean.''

Stuttman has been roasting and selling soybeans in a variety of forms since 1978 at his plant in Mason, Mich. He offers soybeans as nuts, candy-coated snacks, and salad and ice-cream toppings for restaurants.