Soybean cousin searches for a place on U.S. farmland
Edamame, the edible soybean, is a perennial mystery crop for U.S. agriculture. Almost every edamame crunch is cash for Asian producers, despite U.S. farmers having the soil, climate, know-how and demand waiting in the bag. Why are U.S. farmers leaving edamame on the table? Because if edamame isn’t plucked, shucked and frozen in quick fashion, it fades like a snowflake in summer.
Green in harvest color and in profit, edamame remains out of reach for most farmers due to a severe lack of logistics and processing plants. Simply, edamame has to move from field to cook pot in a matter of hours. However, with a market begging for more of the tasty seeds, U.S. producers still give edamame long looks and hope for infrastructure opportunity.
Edamame is the same crop species as grain-type soybeans. However, it’s seeds are larger and have a sweet, nutty flavor that is served in vegetable form. It has been eaten in Asia for centuries as a snack. There has been limited edamame planting in the U.S., but production has increased in the past decade. In the early 2000s, edamame began catching the attention of more Americans. Most U.S. supermarkets now carry edamame, but flip the bag over and note the countries of origin: China and Thailand.
Awareness of edamame is building, but acreage is not, adds Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council. She consistently fields questions from farmers interested in growing edamame. “We can’t coordinate farmer growth and fresh vegetable facilities. It’s a real conundrum. Edamame is a value-added crop and farmers could make money, but there’s so little infrastructure,” she says.
In the field, edamame behaves like soybeans, but producers aim at a different target. Yield is measured by tons per acre of marketable pods and each pod needs two to three unblemished seeds. Passersby might assume edamame to be soybeans, but edamame pods are bigger and the plants sometimes have unique leaf shapes.
Edamame is harvested near the R6 stage when the plant is entirely green. Harvest time is critical and unforgiving, says Marty Williams, USDA–Agricultural Research Service ecologist at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign.
“Waiting too long to harvest is akin to waiting too long for sweet corn. You can go from having a delicacy to having hog feed. When it’s ready, you’ve got a couple days to get it out, at most,” he says.
Whether edamame is kept in-pod or shelled, it’s blanched, quick-chilled and frozen during processing. Domestic acreage, pricing and demand levels remain hazy. Best management practices and agronomic research are also lacking.
Williams began researching edamame in 2011, borrowing techniques for grain-type soybeans. However, edamame and soybeans aren’t a happy marriage. “What makes for a tasty seed to eat can make for a miserable seed to produce a seedling,” he says.
Will edamame continue as a what-if crop? “Demand is strong and may be increasing,” Williams says. “I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that we’re the top soybean producing nation in the world, but can’t grow the edamame consumed in our own country.”