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Associated Press
Edamame, commonly used in Asian cuisine, is drawing interest by farmers for its benefits as a non-meat protein.

Little-known soybean has promise of lots of green

– A small but growing number of farmers have been experimenting with an edible soybean as they look to capitalize on Americans’ interest in adding non-meat proteins to their diets.

The United States is one of the world’s top soybean producers, but most beans grown are used to make cooking oil and feed farm animals. They aren’t eaten whole.

Now, some farmers from Arkansas to Minnesota are planting a type called edamame, which is commonly used in Asian cuisine.

Food-trend experts and farmers say edamame remains a niche product – somewhere between chia seeds and quinoa in popularity – but they see potential for growth if food companies can figure out an efficient processing system for a crop that must be harvested and packaged quickly. Plus, with meat prices rising, Americans are interested in less expensive, alternative proteins. And possible marketing worries, including the notion that soybeans are livestock food, have faded.

“Soy has not historically been viewed as being an edible crop in the U.S., but now, with more people becoming aware of Asian foods like tofu and edamame ... and more people adopting plant-based diets,” things are changing, said Ray Chung, who runs an Arkansas plant billed as the first one in the U.S. dedicated to processing edamame.

Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a consumer market research firm, said he’s seen a trend in cost-conscious consumers looking for alternatives to meat.

“If you can make my proteins cheaper by providing me with an alternative protein source, I think you have a wider market because now you’re talking about money saved,” Balzer said.

It’s not clear how much edamame is being produced in the U.S. because the Department of Agriculture doesn’t distinguish it from other soybeans.

But trade groups, such as the American Soybean Association and the Ankeny, Iowa-based Soyfoods Council, agree that the amount is small, and most of what Americans eat now comes from Asia.

Farmers who are testing the edamame market have mostly started small. Ray Gaesser has been planting about one-tenth of an acre on his farm near Corning, Iowa. His main business comes from 6,000 acres of soybeans and corn.

“Growing edamame is the same thing as growing a conventional soybean. It’s the harvesting that’s the difference,” said Gaesser, of the St. Louis-based American Soybean Association.

Farmers typically plant soybeans – edamame or otherwise – in the spring. The plants sprout, grow leaves and flowers and, eventually, bean pods. Most commercially produced soy is left to dry in the fields before its seeds are harvested to make oil and animal feed.

Edamame, on the other hand, is picked when the bean pods are green and tender.

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