By Ken Roseboro
Published: April 4, 2012
Category: Organic / Sustainable Farming
Breeding programs aim to bring the “vegetable soybean” to America’s dinner plates
American farmers lead the world in soybean production, growing 75 million acres in 2011. But production of the “vegetable soybean,” called edamame, lags far behind Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, and Thailand.
That may be changing as demand for nutritious, local, and American-produced foods grows edamame production is increasing. Initiatives in several states aim to boost production, offering US farmers new opportunities to produce a nutritious, good-tasting, easy-to-grow and non-GMO crop.
Though edamame, which means “beans on branches” in Japanese, is considered a vegetable it is still a soybean much like the crop that’s grown on millions of acres. “Edamame is basically a soybean that is harvested green,” says Kerry Clark, a soybean breeder at the University of Missouri. “They are genetically the same as commodity soybeans, just different varieties developed by plant breeders.”
Edamame is a nutritious bean, rich in carbohydrates and protein, and is a good source of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients. It also tastes good.
“They are very satisfying when you eat them. People are amazed at how good they are,” says Patricia Stansbury, owner of Epic Gardens, a Virginia-based seed company that specializes in edamame seeds.
As a crop, edamame is easy to grow and can be grown anywhere soybeans are grown, Clark says.
“They are a good crop for any farmers. They have nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots, which helps the soil,” Stansbury says.
Unlike commodity soybeans, which are harvested after they dry and turn brown, edamame pods are picked green when the beans are sweet and tender.
In the United States, most edamame is grown by home gardeners or on small farms where they are sold at farmers markets or community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.
Edamame is also sold as a frozen food by US-based companies such as Seapoint Farms, Cascadian Farms, Sno Pac Foods, and Sunrich (SunOpta).
According to Corn & Soybean Digest, sales of frozen edamame increased 40% from 2003 to 2007 in the US.
However, Clark says 97% of the edamame sold to the frozen food market is imported from China and other Asian nations. China exports 15,000 to 20,000 tons of edamame to the US each year.
But that is changing, says Mary Jo Wannamaker, owner of Wannamaker Seeds, another supplier of edamame seeds. “I’m definitely seeing more interest in growing edamame in the US. The time is right with the local movement and a desire to have US grown,” she says.
One US company that has seized the edamame opportunity is the American Sweet Bean Company, based in Seneca County, Ohio. The company was founded in 2005 by farmers Charles Fry and his father Jerry, who were looking for new crop opportunities and discovered growing demand for edamame.
American Sweet Bean Co. grows, processes, and sells edamame. The company’s products include packaged and fresh edamame that is cleaned, chilled, and shipped to retail stores.
Charles Fry says he wants to eventually produce 3,000-4,000 tons of edamame in Ohio on several thousand acres and contract farmers in other states.
Like all edamame grown in the US, the American Sweet Bean Company’s edamame is non-GMO. The company also started producing organic edamame in 2011.
Wannamaker says other US food processors are experimenting with edamame. “Vegetable processors are trying to figure out how to grow it and get costs down,” she says.
One of the biggest challenges with edamame is harvesting, which is completely different than for commodity soybeans. On small farms harvesting is done by hand. On larger farms, special equipment, such as a green bean harvester, is needed and this can be expensive.
Key to increasing US edamame production is developing new seed varieties. There are several initiatives underway. Pengyin Cheni, a soybean breeder at the University of Arkansas, is developing edamame varieties as part of a project to investigate its potential as a new crop for the Arkansas River Valley.
“Our breeding objectives include a large bean, high sugar content, the right texture and high yield under Arkansas growing conditions,” Chen says.
An edamame bean should be twice as big as a “commodity” soybean. “The bean we have now is about three-quarters as big as the Chinese edamame, which is okay, and we will continue to increase the size,” Chen said, by further crossbreeding.
Other edamame breeding programs are underway at Washington State University, Iowa State University, University of Kentucky, and North Carolina State, according to Clark and Wannamaker.
In Virginia Patricia Stansbury of Epic Gardens is continuing the work to introduce edamame as a food crop started by Tadesse Mebrahtu, a soybean breeder at Virginia State University.
Dr. Mebrahtu, who focused on developing nutritious, good-tasting edamame varieties, received a three-year, $226,000 grant that aimed to help Virginia’s tobacco farmers grow edamame as an alternative crop.
The grant provided seeds to the farmers and assistance on how to grow them. Funds were also used to purchase equipment including a bean picker and a machine that threshes and shells edamame.
So far, five tobacco farmers have switched to growing edamame. Stansbury also has two organic farmers producing edamame seeds.
She wants to increase the number of edamame farmers. “We want 10 in the grant program and more organic growers also,” she says. “We’re trying to make it a commercial size venture.”
Stansbury gives great credit to Dr. Mebrahtu, who died of cancer in 2010. “He was very generous about sharing information and giving seeds.”
The varieties he developed were delicious and even won a taste test. “Edamame was his specialty; he worked with it because it is a good, nutritious food,” Stansbury says.
American Sweet Bean Company
PO Box One
Old Fort, Ohio 44861
Phone: 888-995-0007, ext. 101
7800 Epic Road
Bon Air, VA 23235-6120
P.O. Box 484
St. Matthews, SC 29135
© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, April 2012