Edamame could find natural home on Michigan farms

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Capital News Service
LANSING — There’s growing interest in how to grow edamame in the Great Lakes region — and experts say Michigan is ripe for the picking.
Edamame is a popular vegetable at many U.S. restaurants. It’s a type of soybean that is harvested while tender.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 90 percent of soy products come from U.S. farms, and more than 80 percent are grown in the Midwest. But they’re mostly grain-type soybeans dried and fed to cattle or manufactured into protein sources like soy milk.
In June, the department estimated that soybean acreage nationally for 2016 would be a record-high 83.7 million acres, a 1 percent increase from 2015. It predicted that Michigan would be one of seven states setting new acreage records.
Edamame has been an untapped crop for Midwest farmers since its rise in demand developed over the past decade, says Marty Williams, a University of Illinois crop scientist and ecologist for the Agriculture Department. In 2010, more than 100,000 tons of edamame entered the country.
The first large-scale commercial effort to grow edamame began in Arkansas in 2014, but it hasn’t caught on in the Midwest. Williams says that’s why he became interested in researching the feasibility of the crop.
“Edamame is the same species as the grain-type soybean, which is grown on more than 80-million acres (U.S.), so I wondered why there wasn’t significant edamame production in the U.S.,” Williams said.
His research found only one EPA-approved herbicide for edamame, which reduces the chances of success. An alternative is hand-weeding at about $500 an acre.
He’s since worked to gain approval of eight new options. Many were already used for the dried grain version of the bean.
Edamame may be the high-maintenance cousin in the soy family as it requires careful harvesting, but there’s no reason it can’t be grown in the state, said Michael Staton, a soybean expert at Michigan State University.
Michigan began researching the feasibility of edamame as a regional crop in the early 1990s – well before its popularity soared.
That research found the tools were mostly in place because green beans were already an agricultural crop, Staton said. Those tools included machines to harvest the beans with minimal bruising and facilities in Southwest Michigan to process them as a frozen vegetable.
“There is absolutely nothing that I see as insurmountable in the production side. I think Michigan is a really good place to do it,” he said. “It has a lot of infrastructure, what’s already in place. It is hard to build an industry from scratch.”
Staton also conducted a survey of 100 farmers. He said it showed 91 percent enjoyed the flavor of the shelled bean. And there is another advantage for Michigan farmers, Staton said. Soybeans grown in the state contain higher protein levels than those from other areas, which he attributes to the climate.
Staton says he suspects uncertainty about the product likely prevented farmers from planting it.
“Do you jump into something production-wise when you don’t know if you’ve got a market, and try to hope the market comes? Or do you try to build a market but you don’t have production yet?” Staton said.
But research and interest in soy is returning to the Great Lakes region.    
The Center for Innovative Food Technology in Ohio began trials on commercial edamame about 18 months ago, said Rebecca Singer, the center’s president of agricultural programs. But its test plot succumbed to drought.
Researchers also found the bean required careful monitoring since edamame has only a five-day harvest window before it starts to yellow, she said.
“Every single day we had to be monitoring the plant in order to determine when to harvest because that is how it impacts the flavor profile,” Singer said.
Experts say further research will eventually lead to a new source of income for Midwest farmers, but Williams said he doesn’t expect a drastic change.
“Edamame isn’t going to ‘take over’ the landscape in the Great Lakes states,” he said. “While domestic demand has been on the rise for quite a while, and you can find it in grocery stores and several restaurants, even the most popular vegetable crops are grown on a relatively small land area.”
Carin Tunney writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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