URBANA — As the popularity of healthy, edible soybeans has grown among American consumers, researchers and farmers in the Midwest have started asking if, in a land where soybean and corn are king, there is room for “vegetable soybeans,” also known as edamame.
They’ve found more work needs to be done on the production challenges before edamame would become a more common crop here.
Some of the factors that make the tastiest edamame — the ability to produce large, soft beans — make it the most difficult to produce commercially, said Marty Williams, USDA-ARS ecologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“What makes a seed delicious to eat can make for a miserable seed to produce a plant,” he said.
Williams’ team is looking at seed emergence issues. During three years of field trials using 136 edamame lines, seed germination and emergence of edamame was poorer than that of grain-type soybeans.
Brian Plenert, a Livingston County farmer, who also has a farrow-to-finish hog operation, hasn’t had problems with getting the edamame out of the ground.
“I haven’t had any problems with emergence,” said Plenert.
He sells some of the crop, holding back seeds for next year, and continues to investigate which are the best varieties to grow on his farm near Forrest in Eastern Illinois.
While some vegetable soybeans have been grown in the U.S. for a century, there has been more interest in the last decade as consumer demand grows.
“We’re still learning,” Plenert said.
A LITTLE divine intervention led Plenert to start growing the crop. The pastor at his church had 14 varieties of edamame seed and no time to garden, so he passed the seed on to Plenert.
Over the last four years, he has narrowed down the 14 varieties to the best four or five, which he grows on 2 acres. He sells his crop to grocery stores in Champaign and Bloomington and other buyers in Central Illinois.
His family enjoys eating the beans raw, in salads and in other recipes. Although sometimes it can be too much. As they taste-test the field beans, he recalled thinking, “That’s enough for today.”
“It’s different than wine testing,” he joked.
It is also labor-intensive work, with the family picking, pulling pods, cleaning and getting the products packaged and ready for market. Larger farms use automated equipment for some of this work. But, the father of three, ages 12 to 19, said this crop gives the next generation a chance to work together.
With this hands-on approach, their family controls one of the problems that plague some edamame growers.
“We walk the beans and pull out the weeds,” he said.
In 2010, there was only one federally approved herbicide to use with edamame. Since then, eight herbicides with six modes of action have been registered depending on location.
That alone helps makes the crop more viable, said Williams, a weed specialist.
Further testing is also needed to find varieties that produce the sweet, nutty flavor diners enjoy, but also have good production qualities, Williams said.
IN THEORY, the climate would be ideal for edamame in most parts of the Midwest, Williams said. But another key issue to the development of the crop is nearby processing facilities.
Large edamame-growing states including Arkansas, Oregon and Washington, where thousands of acres are grown and farmers have access to processors. Edamame is most often grown on contract basis in those states.
In the Midwest, farmers often have to do their own processing and marketing. Sometimes it is easier to work together, said Plenert, whose family works closely with another couple nearby.
Some progress has been made on these issues, Williams said. But, at least for the time being, edamame will likely continue to be a specialty crop in the Midwest.
For growers who are interested, he advised it is best to start on a small scale, find the right varieties, the right techniques and develop connections with processors and buyers.