Edamame is that tasty treat American consumers once found only in Japanese restaurants or Asian specialty markets. But in recent years, the bright green soybeans have become a staple in big grocery chains and even McDonald's salads.
And that could spell opportunity for some U.S. soybean growers.
Melissa's/World Variety Produce, a large specialty vegetable marketer in Los Angeles, reports edamame is a top-10 item among its 1,000 products. The company's 12-oz. refrigerated packs (edamame in pods) have jumped an average of 10% in sales each year since they were introduced in 2001.
“It has been extremely popular and I think we will continue to see strong growth as it becomes more and more mainstream,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa's. In addition to the pod trays which retail for $3-3.50, Melissa's sells shelled edamame, plus organic alternatives.
Frozen edamame sales are on the rise, too. According to Soyatech, LLC, a clearing house 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% jump.
EDAMAME IS A different variety from soybeans grown for livestock feed, oil or tofu. The large beans are naturally high in protein and fiber and “they taste good,” says Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council. “Kids really love them because they can open up the pods and pop the beans into their mouths.”
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, including Melissa's, rely on imported edamame from China or Taiwan to feed the growing demand.
Charles Fry is hoping to change that.
A little over five years ago, Fry returned to his home farm in Seneca County, OH, where his father Jerry raised corn, soybeans, sugar beets and vegetable crops. Looking to add a new crop, Charles suggested edamame, which he'd first eaten while traveling overseas as a computer industry executive.
In 2004, the Frys planted 2 acres to learn how it grew and what management practices were required. They purchased non-biotech edamame seed through a commercial seed company and used a one-row, modified green bean picker for harvesting.
The edamame thrived in the Frys' light sandy loam soils, and as they added more acres over the next few years, neighbors began to take notice. “People stopped and said, ‘What are you doing with that bean field? It looks great and you just ripped it up,’” recalls Fry.
Ideal picking time is “three days before you see the first yellow on leaves,” explains Fry. Harvesting must be done within a short window or the beans turn from sweet to a “beany” taste that's undesirable for edamame.
ALTHOUGH GROWING THE crop is much like growing traditional soybeans — except for the harvest window — processing and selling edamame are altogether different, says Fry. “If you go out and grow a field of it and think you are going to sell it when it gets ready, that market just doesn't exist,” he says.
The Frys formed the American Sweet Bean Company (ASBC) in order to process the beans and develop a market. They built a small processing plant, and Charles Fry has spent countless hours talking with food companies and retailers about the benefits of buying his U.S.-produced edamame.
Sales have grown to the point that ASBC is now contracting with other area farmers with plans to harvest about 1,000 acres of edamame in 2009.
ASBC's contract growers can expect to make “somewhere between $600 and $750/acre” after direct costs including seed, fertilizer, herbicide and harvesting expenses, Fry says.
Carol Miles, who studies edamame as a vegetable Extension specialist at Washington State University, believes some U.S. soybean growers have been reluctant to grow edamame due to high seed costs. “Historically, the seed has been imported and is very expensive; American producers are not used to paying that kind of money for seed for a crop like soybeans,” she says.
Still, the Frys are optimistic about opportunities for U.S. growers and hope to eventually expand with contract growers in other regions of the country.
“We think the consumer demand is going to continue to increase for this crop,” he says. “People love it.”
For more information, contact ASBC at [email protected]  or 888-995-0007.