Edamame didn’t even appear in the Merriam-Webster dictionary until 2008, so don’t feel too bad if you’re not familiar with the term. The spell-check function on my computer certainly doesn’t recognize it. Pronounced ed-uh-MAH-may, it’s a Japanese word for food from immature (or green) soybean pods. And it may well become an important word in the Arkansas vocabulary.

 

Traditional soybean production is big business in the state, with Arkansas’ farmers planting over 3 million acres yearly of the crop. Given its annual yield of approximately 130 million bushels, the state is easily among the top soybean producers in the country. Almost all of Arkansas’ soybeans are considered “commodity beans” – which are harvested in late fall as dry beans and then crushed to extract oil and meal. Most of these beans and their products are used in prepared food for humans (margarine, salad dressings, and cooking oils) or as a protein source for livestock.

 

Until 2012, Arkansas’ farmers had never grown edamame, at least not on a commercial scale. Now, though, the state’s on track to become the “Edamame Capital” of the United States. Raymond Chung, whose Houston-based family has been importing frozen edamame from China for years, became convinced that it made sense to produce the crop in America. After determining that Arkansas had the right combination of soil and climate, Chung contracted with farmers along the Arkansas River in the west central part of the state to grow a Chinese strain of edamame and also a variety developed by the University of Arkansas’ Division of Agriculture. He then built a 32,000-square-foot facility in Mulberry, where nearly 100 employees sort, process, package and ship edamame products. Chung, whose company supplies Whole Foods, Sam’s Club, Costco and other major retailers, expects the demand for frozen edamame in the U.S. to grow 10% a year for the foreseeable future.

 

So, why all the fuss about this legume? In a word, health. Edamame is low in calories, but rich in all sorts of good things: carbohydrates, protein, fiber and a wide variety of critical micronutrients – folates, Vitamin K, manganese, iron, magnesium and zinc. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has described edamame as the “snack with a nutritional punch.” Although much of the edamame consumed in America is served at Asian restaurants, health-conscious individuals have discovered it in recent years, noting its potential for reducing heart disease and cancer risk.

 

As might be expected, edamame production differs somewhat from growing typical soybeans. One big change is that edamame is harvested far earlier in the season than normal soybeans. Rather than cutting the dried beans the usual 120-140 days after planting, farmers harvest edamame while the pods and seed are still green, some 85-90 days following planting. Yields of edamame are typically lower than traditional soybeans, due to the fact that pods on the plants will be in various stages of maturity; some are ready for harvest while others are either too “old” or too “young.” Unlike their Asian counterparts, Arkansas’ edamame farmers use mechanical harvesters to bring in their crops. With consumers desiring blemish-free edamame, care must be taken to avoid bruising the pods.

 

Arkansas’ agricultural experts are excited about edamame’s promise for the state. Not only does it present another option for farmers, the crop provides a solid economic return. Meanwhile, Chung remains particularly enthusiastic about the future for his agricultural venture in Arkansas, hopeful for the day when tons of Arkansas edamame will be exported to Asia.

 

Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.

 

Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.

 

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