Edamame – a new local food?

It’s a healthy green vegetable that is growing in popularity with consumers. So much so that a niche market for Ontario-grown edamame could be one with potential for farmers.

Edamame is a succulent soybean that is a staple in some Asian diets. Although it is planted and grown like a regular soybean crop, edamame is harvested when the plant has reached the R7 stage – still green and at the peak of its sugar levels, which results in the best flavour.

Most existing commercial edamame varieties have been developed in Asia and are best suited to the climate in that part of the world. Research is needed in order to determine which varieties will do well here in Canada.

That’s the work of soybean breeder Dr. Vaino Poysa and the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research station at Harrow, Ontario. The station is running a small amount of edamame research alongside its food grade soybean program, focusing on plant performance and, more importantly, taste.

In order for edamame to have the best flavour, it must be harvested when the sucrose and amino acid levels in the beans are at their peak. This is a very short time span, often only a few days.

“With edamame, you want a sweet, nutty flavour that comes from the sucrose and amino acids in the plant. There are considerable differences in taste and flavour across the varieties,” says Poysa, adding that the challenge is developing one that tastes good and grows well in Ontario’s climate and growing conditions.

Currently, edamame in Canada is sourced from China or Taiwan and is available at most Canadian food retail outlets in shelled or in-pod form or as part of vegetable mixes.

“This is a niche market. The plant is harvested in the pod at the green stage, which is not that easy when you’re working with a tender plant,” says Poysa. “If we can develop a line that is quite good, we can over time get some processors interested in it. I can see a few growers having edamame as a decent addition to a crop lineup if they have equipment or facilities already.”

One grower who is definitely interested is Jason Persall of Waterford, Ontario. Persall, a fourth generation farmer, markets a line of 100 percent Canadian oils, wine vinegars, soya sauces and cooking wines under the Pristine Gourmet brand, as well as growing corn, wheat and soybeans. And this year, he’ll also be growing edamame for the first time.

Persall will be experimenting with at least a half a dozen varieties as part of his on-farm trials this year to determine the taste and ease of shelling for each one. He is also looking to identify yield, or pounds per acre, so he can establish a realistic price for his end product.

“This is a relatively new crop for Ontario. We want to really concentrate at the beginning to find a variety that produces a great tasting product,” he says. “We’re a food company as well as a farm, so we have access into the market place and there’s a market waiting for it.”

Persall is planning to hand-harvest his edamame and sell it as a fresh product with the pods still on the stems directly to high end Ontario restaurants and chefs, a market he says has been asking for Ontario-grown edamame. He’ll be working with a small group of chefs to gain their feedback to help evaluate the different varieties.

“Chefs have told us they’re eager to source edamame locally and we’re excited about it,” he says. “There are a lot of things we can grow in this country but we don’t know how to market it.”

Marketing is often the hardest part of breaking into a new crop and even with a great product, it is hard to develop a market if a crop can be imported cheaper than it can be grown here at home.

Information on this year’s trial crop of edamame will be posted on Pristine Gourmet’s Facebook page.

Photo source: McCormick

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