Mention edamame (pronounced ed-ah-mommy) in some urban areas with diverse populations, and some people will know you’re talking about a salt-boiled dish of sweet, green soybeans that originated in Asia. In other parts of the United States, however, you’ll get a good number of confused looks.
That’s why even the most experienced vegetable growers in the flat, fertile terrain of northern Seneca County were perplexed when Ohio Farm Bureau member Charles Fry decided he was going to grow edamame on the family farm. He had just returned to the traditional corn and soybean farm after spending 20 years traveling around the world in the technology industry, perhaps justifying the skepticism.
“They thought either this is going to be really neat, or Fry’s lost his marbles,” he said of the farmers who are more accustomed to growing the region’s fields of tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage and peppers.
Looking for a way to increase the profitability of the farm without purchasing more land, Fry partially credits his experiences traveling in Japan for the decision to grow edamame.
“I remember the first time I had it in a sushi restaurant,” he said. “It looked a lot like a soybean that hadn’t turned yellow yet, and sure enough, that’s exactly what it is.”
But that’s about all Fry knew about the crop.
With the area’s history of producing vegetable crops, Fry said he normally didn’t have to go very far to find information about value-added crops and how to market them.
“We (he and his father Gerry) spent a little bit of time researching the crop, and we found an abundance of nothing,” he said.
But Fry said he’d never let something like that get in his way. “For me as an entrepreneur, when I can’t find any information about something, I see that as more of an opportunity than an impediment.”
He was able to get his hands on some seed in 2004 and decided to plant two acres. “I knew what they should look like, but that’s about it,” he said.
To learn more about growing edamame, Fry turned to the Japanese, or as he said, “the real experts in edamame.” He invited some edamame farmers to see his fields. They told him the beans looked great and he would have no problem growing a quality crop. It was the endorsement he was looking for. “Asking a Japanese farmer how long he’s been growing edamame is like asking an Ohio farmer how long he’s been growing corn,” Fry said.
For Fry and area farmers, that first year was a learning experience.
A new endeavor
“An edamame soybean is to field beans what sweet corn is to field corn,” Fry said. “The varieties are selected for large beans with high sugar content, and they are harvested at the peak of ripeness when fully sized and ready to pick.”
This means the beans are harvested when the plants are still lush, green and about waist-high. It’s quite a contrast from traditional soybeans (raised for grain and oil) that are harvested when the plant turns brown and the beans dry up.
Fry said the sight of a modified harvester removing still green soybean pods from a field shocked area farmers. “The first couple years we had neighbors stop by and say, `What are you doing? Why are you tearing up your field?'”
But with each year, questions were answered.
In 2007, he grew 200 acres of edamame. While it was roughly 10 percent of the entire U.S. edamame crop that year, it was nearly the entire U.S. crop used for commercial processing. He said most U.S. farmers grow it in small quantities to sell locally. Most of his edamame (as of September) went to a food processing company that used it mainly in mixed vegetables.
Still, Fry estimates that 85 percent to 90 percent of the edamame consumed in the United States is imported from Asia. It’s something he’s working to change.
With a goal to make U.S.-grown edamame more mainstream and widely available, Charles and his father created a company separate from the farm known as the American Sweet Bean Company. The company’s mission is to contract with local growers to raise edamame.
The company is developing marketing for consumers, but with local growers being an important part of the plan, it also markets to them. Fry holds grower updates and invites area farmers to the farm to learn more about the crop.
John Riehm, owner and operator of Riehm Farms and Riehm Farm Market, is an area farmer who started growing edamame for Fry in 2008.
“We’re both a bit innovative,” he said. “My farm is very diversified and I take chances on food crops all the time, so I thought I’d experiment and try it. I thought it was a great idea and I jumped in as a grower that supports him.”
In the deal, Riehm grows the crop and American Sweet Bean does the harvesting, processing and marketing. Riehm said as long as demand remains, he’ll continue to grow the crop. “Charles is a great marketer,” he said. “He’s doing the hard part, I’m just growing it.”
In 2010, Fry plans to introduce American Sweet Bean edamame to grocery stores. He said the company is on track to grow 500 to 1,000 acres of edamame, mostly through contracted local farmers.
But just getting the food into grocery stores isn’t enough for him.
He plans to include labeling on each bag allowing consumers to go to the company’s Web site to see what field their edamame was grown in, learn about production methods and find out more about Riehm and other farmers who grow edamame.
“My dad has farmed his entire life and has forgotten more about farming than I’ll ever learn,” Fry said. “We want people to know we are out here growing this for them and their family, and that there is truth and integrity in that food that’s on their plate.”
Turns out Charles Fry never lost his marbles. He was just shining them up for a brand new game.
American Sweet Bean’s definition of edamame:
The Japanese name edamame is commonly used in some English-speaking countries to refer to the dish. The Japanese name literally means “twig bean” (eda = “twig” + mame = “bean”), and is a reference to the short stem attached to the pod. This term originally referred to young soybeans in general. Over time, however, the prevalence of the salt-boiled preparation meant that the term edamame now often refers specifically to this dish.