Garden-Variety Soybeans

March 12, 2011 12:01 AM
Garden-Variety Soybeans

All you string-bean lovers, listen up: Vegetable-type soybeans pack a bigger nutritional punch and are amazingly tasty, too.

University of Illinois soybean breeder Richard Bernard’s career-long crusade to bring edible soybeans to America’s dinner plates continues. At the age of 83, when many people have long since retired, Bernard has unveiled his 14th Gardensoy variety.

Farmers in Japan and Korea have been growing the mild-flavored vegetable soybeans, known as edamame, for centuries. Bernard began crossing Asian varieties with our own high-yielding soybeans several decades ago, and he’s not finished yet.

Bernard says he’s looking forward to developing varieties that have higher protein content and higher concen-tration of omega-3 fatty acids and to creating varieties that do not have the genes that cause allergic reactions.

He may be concentrating on good eating today, but his earlier soybean-breeding efforts helped form an industry. The majority of the commodity soybean varieties grown in the Midwest during the 1960s and 1970s came from Bernard’s breeding program.

A city kid from Detroit, Bernard grew up working in an auto factory before joining the army. After the war, he was hitchhiking through southwestern Illinois when a farmer stopped and picked him up.

"The farmer mentioned soybeans, and I had to ask what they were," Bernard says. "He hit the brakes and made me go out in the field and take a look. That was my first experience with soybeans. Little did that farmer know what he was starting when he stopped the truck and took me out into that field."

Bernard went on to obtain his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Ohio State University and a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University. As a USDA research agronomist at the University of Illinois, he also became the curator of the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection.
Breeding edamame began in the 1980s as a hobby with the goal of developing "especially good eating" large-seeded edamame with higher protein content. "Large-seeded edamame have a better mouth feel," Bernard explains. "Those varieties mainly come from Japan and Korea, but they tend to be prone to shattering and susceptible to diseases."

Bernard released the first six edamame varieties in 2000, followed by seven more in 2002. He named them Gardensoy and appended numbers 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.

"For years, I mailed out free seed packets for people to grow Gardensoy in their home gardens," he says. "Most people’s hobby costs them money. I consider that the price of mine."

Changing old habits. Overcoming misconceptions about eating soybeans has been Bernard’s greatest challenge throughout the years. "People are harder to change than soybeans," he says. "In the Midwest, people have been slower to accept edamame, despite its great taste and nutritional value."

As more and more people learn about the convenience and benefits of this complete protein vegetable, demand has increased. However, most of the demand has been met through the import of product from China, says Theresa Herman, University of Illinois research specialist.
Gardensoy varieties are perfect for growing in gardens, Bernard says.  Due to harvesting and storage challenges, few U.S. operations are currently producing edamame on a large scale. However, consumer interest is quickly increasing, along with the number of producers 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 says. "As more edamame is grown and consumed in the U.S., it remains to be seen whether the Gardensoy varieties will be the chosen favorites. However, Dr. Bernard will always be in the group of pioneers who saw the potential of this crop in the U.S—for human health and for grower profit."

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