Arkansas: America’s edamame belt

Claudine Zap
Claudine Zap

The next time you pop open the exotic-sounding edamame (pronounced ed-uh-mah-may) pod, you may actually be eating an Arkansas-grown soybean, NPR reports.

The state has become a hot spot for growing the natural snack food, which is often served in Asian restaurants and sold frozen at grocery stores.

Ground zero for soybean production: Mulberry, Arkansas, where Raymond Chung, co-owner and chief financial officer of American Vegetable Soybean &
Edamame Inc., convinced farmers to plant some 900 acres of edamame last year and declared the area the "edamame capital of the U.S."

"We are the first dedicated edamame producer in the U.S.," Chung told Yahoo over the phone. Americans already eat 25,000 to 30,000 tons of the salty snack a year, and Chung estimates the demand for frozen edamame will grow 10 percent year over year in what he estimates to be a $175 million to $200 million market.

Chung told Yahoo that after importing the product from China for the past 10 years, his company was looking for a way to grow the crop in the U.S. Arkansas already grows soybeans for industrial use, as well as corn and rice. Farmers were willing to grow the non-GMO, edible variety, he said.

A public-private effort in the state developed a variety of the crop that could be grown locally.

Last year a 32,000-square-foot plant was constructed for the production and shipping of the edible soybean.

"This is going to be a hit in Arkansas," Jeremy Ross, an extension soybean specialist at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service told
Yahoo in a phone interview on farming edible soybeans. "Any time farmers have something else they can venture into that kind of diversifies what they're
growing, that's always good."

Chung noted that the latest crop has already been spoken for, going to retailers like Whole Foods, Sam's Club, and Costco. He hopes to double production
next year.

That doesn't mean Americans know exactly what it is they're eating, even if they like it.

"Most people, when I tell them about edamame and say it's really a soybean, they are shocked," Linda Funk of the Iowa-based Soyfoods Council told NPR. She believes other states may follow Arkansas and grow edamame. Smaller producers also exist in California, Minnesota, and Ohio, according to NPR.

In an odd twist, Chung sees the possibility of selling the soybeans to Asia, where they have been eaten for hundreds of years. "We think there's a really big opportunity for us to export the product back to China," he said.

Chung noted that studies showed that 60 percent of consumers in China preferred products made in America over those made locally. "Chinese consumers are becoming more educated about their food. They want 'made in the USA.'"