LMA — Plans for Arkansas farmers to be the first in the United States to grow vegetable soybeans for large-scale commercial production of edamame moved closer to realization in September at a meeting of a leading U.S. edamame importer with farmers and University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture personnel at the Division’s Vegetable Research Station near Alma.

Edamame — green soybeans in the pod or shelled — is a popular vegetable in Asia with rapidly growing demand in the United States.

Pods or beans are steamed and served warm or cold as a side dish or snack and in salads or soups. Edamame beans are larger and have higher protein and sucrose levels than commodity soybeans.

"If we were running a 26-mile marathon, we would be in mile 25," said Kelly Cartwright of ARI, Inc., an agricultural research and development and consulting company in Fayetteville. He is working with the Division of Agriculture to promote the edamame venture in the state.

Jing-yau (Gene) Chung, founder of JYC Foods, a major importer of high-quality frozen foods from Asia, has successfully marketed imported edamame for seven years to major retail grocery and restaurant chains. JYC Foods is based in Houston.

"My customers tell me the demand for fresh edamame grown in the United States will be even greater than the very strong demand for our imported frozen edamame," Chung told the field day audience, which included Arkansas River Valley farmers -- including Joe Thrash of Conway -- who are interested in growing the crop.

Chung said current plans are to contract with farmers to grow 600 to 1,000 acres of vegetable soybeans in 2012. JYC Foods will provide seed and will harvest, transport, process, package and ship the edamame from a facility to be built in the area. The Arkansas acreage could increase to 10,000 acres in a few years and even more over time, Chung said.

A bean harvester owned by JYC Foods was demonstrated in edamame test plots Monday. The Pixal Superjack bean picker is now housed at the Vegetable Research Station at Kibler, about six miles southwest of Alma.

Chung, who is an engineer, inventor and entrepreneur with a doctorate from Purdue University, said one of his many patents is for a packaging system that will keep edamame beans or pods fresh for up to 21 days, which far exceeds the requirement of produce and deli product retailers. He also developed an optical recognition system to remove blemished beans from an edamame packaging line.

His decision to base fresh edamame production in Arkansas is based on several factors, Chung said, including the support of the Division of Agriculture and the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board, among others.

Lanny Ashlock, Division of Agriculture assistant to the vice president for agriculture and Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board director of research, said the board, which is composed of farmers, is very supportive of the venture.

"If you can grow soybeans, you can grow edamame," said Faulkner County extension staff chair Hank Chaney, a member of the Division’s edamame task force.

Arkansas farmers yearly grow more than three million acres of soybeans.

Chung said farmers would receive a premium price for edamame compared to the price for commodity soybeans, based on a grading scale for the quality of beans delivered.

"If, for whatever reason, you could not sell a crop for edamame, you can let the plants mature and sell the crop as commodity soybeans," Chaney said.

Edamame seed for planting in 2012 will likely be a JYC proprietary variety from China. However, seed of a line developed by the Division of Agriculture may soon be available.

Chung said one of the reasons he chose Arkansas for edamame production is the Division of Agriculture soybean breeding program directed by Pengyin Chen, professor of crop, soil and environmental sciences.

Chen showed test plots comparing the JYC variety with edamame breeding lines from his breeding program. The Arkansas lines are better adapted to Arkansas conditions and produce higher yields than those from China, he said. Chen said he is making additional crosses of parent lines to increase seed size, which is currently slightly smaller than the standard for edamame from China.

Chung said he came to the United States from Taiwan in 1965 to study at Kansas State University. While earning his Ph.D. degree at Purdue University he had a job making egg rolls for a company that sold them to retail stores and restaurants.

Chung said his egg roll recipe was very popular, and he started his own small business, which grew into Chung’s Gourmet Foods in Houston. The company produced 300,000 egg rolls a day when he sold it 20 years later. Chung’s became the leading brand of frozen egg rolls in the U.S.

In 2002, Chung started JYC Foods, which imports spring rolls and other high-quality frozen food products from Asia as well as edamame.