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Edible soybean rises in popularity with U.S. consumers & producers


Illinois Correspondent

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Edamame is showing up everywhere, in farmers’ markets, grocery stores and even in McDonald’s salads. Think of edamame’s edibility as to soybeans, what sweet corn is to field corn.

While consumption of the crunchy sweet bean is rapidly increasing in the United States, national production is limited to fewer than 5,000 acres nationwide, mostly in Ohio, Kentucky, California, Illinois and Indiana. Yet, soybean and edamame experts believe this will rapidly change in the coming decade as more growers learn its attributes.

Consumers have quickly caught on to edamame’s benefits and versatility. “Edamame are a unique vegetable because they provide a complete protein,” says Theresa Herman, University of Illinois research specialist. “They are a great option for vegetarians or for individuals looking to decrease their consumption of meat.”

A common snack food in China and Japan, where use goes back more than 1,000 years, edamame were studied in Illinois and across the U.S. in the 1930s when the search for a value-added food was a priority. So, how can this old crop be new for Illinois?

Illinois consumers spend $48 billion on food each year, but most of this money leaves the state. Last summer, the Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act was passed to help facilitate the development of the local food system and keep more of that money in Illinois.

Some UoI researchers believe edamame is a good candidate for the expanding food production system in Illinois.

“It’s the same species as grain soybeans, so it’s a logical crop as Illinois is one of the top two soybean-producing states,” Herman says. “However, because it’s a newer crop here, more research is needed on agronomic practices to produce edamame more efficiently at the commercial level. More information on the performance of the available commercial varieties is also needed.”

In fact, UoI researchers have developed numerous edamame varieties suited for the Midwest growing season. Researcher Richard Bernard has been breeding soybeans and edamame since 1954 and just released his 14th variety of Gardensoy edamame, called Gardensoy 51.

His next projects develop varieties with higher protein content, higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acid and creating varieties that do not have the genes that cause allergic reactions.

In the 1980s, he began breeding edamame as a hobby, with a goal to develop “especially good eating” large-seeded edamame with higher protein content, as well as one which would grow well in Illinois.

“Large-seeded edamame have a better mouth feel for eating,” Bernard explained. “Those varieties mainly come from Japan and Korea, but they tend to be prone to shattering and susceptible to diseases. I wanted to create edamame varieties with improvement in those areas.”

Bernard released the first six edamame varieties in 2000, followed by seven more in 2002. Cultivars are selected for their sweet, mild flavor and nutty texture. He named them Gardensoy with numbers following to reflect the soybean maturity group and release order. His latest release, classified in soybean maturity group V, adds a later-maturing variety to the mix and will be the last one to harvest before the frost hits.

Because of harvesting and storage challenges, only a few operations in the U.S. are currently producing edamame on a large scale. However, consumer interest is quickly increasing along with the number of farmers growing edamame to sell at farmers’ markets.

“The U.S. edamame industry has yet to take off in a big way, but with increasing demand, sustainability of local production is more and more likely,” Herman said.

Producing edamame has its challenges. For example, mechanical equipment is available to harvest the crop, but machine bruising can reduce the saleable pods by about 25 percent, extension specialists report. That’s why it is best harvested by hand.

In traditional edamame marketplaces in Japan and China, the entire stalk has considerable value and it is often sold with the seed pods intact on the whole plant, root and all, in 25-pound bundles.

Net returns can bring $400-$1,300 per acre in the U.S.. With a 90- to 120-day growing season, it can be a lucrative crop. In fact, it is a suitable rotation crop and offers growers another option for diversification.

The University of Kentucky (UK) recently sponsored 24 educational programs in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. “We wanted to put it on the map, and it surprised us how well it was accepted in the community,” said Tim Woods, a UK marketing specialist.

The bean’s popularity encouraged about a dozen farmers to start growing edamame. They sell the fresh product at local farmers’ markets and at health food stores, where people buy them by the “bunch” – about two pounds of beans in pods on stems – for between $3-$5.

Frozen edamame sales are on the rise, too. According to Soyatech, LLC, a clearinghouse for soybean and oilseed information. U.S. sales of frozen green soybeans went from $18 million in 2003 to $30 million in 2007 – a 40 percent jump.

Pods are picked green when the beans are sweet and tender, then cleaned, blanched and flash-frozen immediately out of the field. Only a tiny handful of U.S. farmers grow edamame, so most domestic retailers and distributors rely on imported edamame from China or Taiwan to feed the growing demand.

There’s a grower in Ohio who hopes to change this. Charles Fry works with his father in Seneca County, and started his edamame production with two acres of non-biotech edamame seed through a commercial seed company and used a one-row, modified green bean picker for harvesting.

The Frys formed the American Sweet Bean Co. (ASBC) to process the beans and develop a market. Sales have grown to the point that ASBC is now contracting with other area farmers and planned to harvest about 1,000 acres of edamame in 2009.

ASBC’s contract growers can expect to make “somewhere between $600 and $750 per acre” after direct costs including seed, fertilizer, herbicide and harvesting expenses, Fry says.

It has been estimated that the U.S. could produce 32,000 acres of the crop to meet demand domestically.