Edamame given star role in latest UI Agronomy Day tour

Edamame given star role in latest UI Agronomy Day tour

URBANA — Here in the heart of soybean country, some folks aren't acquainted with edamame (eh-duh-MAH-may), the edible soybean.

That was underscored Thursday when folks on a University of Illinois Agronomy Day tour tried some edamame samples.

Instead of digging seeds out of the pod to eat, some put the whole pod in their mouths and chewed it before spitting it out.

"It's important to eat the seeds, not the pods," said Marty Williams, an associate professor in the UI Department of Crop Sciences. "That was an indication that those folks have never tried it before."

But the U.S. market for edamame — vegetable soybean, rather than the grain-type soybean grown around here — is expanding.

That's one reason Williams, also an ecologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, decided to make an Agronomy Day presentation on the bean.

Edamame pods are usually boiled or steamed, then salted, before serving. They're considered a high-protein, low-fat snack.

Most edamame consumed in the United States comes from Asia — principally from China but also from Taiwan, Williams said.

But U.S. farmers could produce it, too.

"We can grow it here with no problem at all," Williams said, noting that retired UI crop scientist Richard Bernard developed a dozen edible-soybean lines specifically adapted to Illinois.

The UI has been growing multiple varieties of edamame to understand its tolerance to herbicides and to measure other agronomic traits, he said.

"For the last two years, we have evaluated more than 120 entries of commercial or public edamame germplasm," he stated in his presentation.

"This is not something that's going to transform Illinois agriculture," Williams said, noting that edamame is more likely to be grown in regions close to vegetable processors. "But this is something folks ought to know about."

Several farmers on the tour asked Williams how much money they could make if they grew edamame.

Williams said he had no hard numbers on that. But he said growers could produce 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of edamame per acre.

He noted that edamame — which vegetable processors conventionally blanch, put into bags and freeze — can sell for $3 a pound, and processing costs don't make up much of the retail price.

Williams said there's "almost certainly" some small-scale production of edamame in this region for farmers' markets.

But he said there's been no large-scale production by a vegetable processor in this area for the last decade.

Williams' research helps U.S. vegetable growers solve production problems. He said growers and processors ask him what can be used to manage weeds in edamame.

In the United States, not many herbicides are approved for use on edamame, which is classified as an edible podded legume vegetable.

Harvesting edamame requires equipment completely different from that used for harvesting conventional soybeans.

Edamame is harvested earlier in the season when the plant is still immature, and pods — rather than dry seed — are picked.

Green-bean harvesters are often used to harvest podded edamame, while pea harvesters are used for shelled edamame, known as mukimame, he said.

UI research on the bean dates back to at least to the 1930s, when J.W. Loyd and W.L. Burlison of the UI published "Eighteen Varieties of Edible Soybeans."

Agronomy Day tours were cut short Thursday morning as threatening skies indicated storms that rolled across the area later in the day.