As the soybean harvest winds down in Iowa, there's growing interest in ramping up production of a different kind of soybean, one that is aimed solely at human consumption.
Two carloads of food writers, news reporters and chefs recently joined a field trip to a farm outside of Corning, Iowa to learn more about edamame, the Japanese word for a special variety of green soybeans. Often found in Asian and health food recipes, it is no longer just a novelty. They're in the frozen food isle of many grocery stores.
Sales of frozen edamame recently jumped 40 percent in four years. Still, only one in three Americans even knows what it is. New products, even chocolate covered edamame, are helping to change that, and farmers like Ray Gaesser have taken notice.
The early harvest of his edamame test plot, just three short rows, takes place alongside 3,000 acres of conventional soybeans.
"I'm on the Iowa Soybean Association Board and my fellow farmers there are not shocked at all cause we're always looking for new opportunities," Gaesser explained. "As far as our neighbors, yeah they are interested in it and would like to know more about it but not step off the cliff like we are and do a demonstration."
Linda Funk is with the Soyfoods Council, which organized the edamame junket.
"We have editors here. We want them to talk about it in their magazines," she said. "We have chefs here. We want them to look at using more and more edamame on their menus, and for us to say wow,' what are the opportunities here in Iowa."
Pitching in to shell the beans was Deputy Iowa Agriculture Secretary Kerri Claghorn.
"We're kind of at chicken and egg you know, you need processing you need ability to harvest in correct machinery plus I buy it in the grocery store and it's a product of China and it just makes me think out Iowa farmers could be growing this as well," Claghorn said.
The food editors were sold.
"It's easy cause you can buy them frozen and can zap it in the microwave and I think we all need to get more vegetables in our diet," said Diana McMillan, of Midwest Living Magazine.
The fuzzy little bean is going from an appetizer, to side dishes and garnishes, according to Gail Bellamy, with Restaurant Hospitality.
"It is very pretty and it's got a mild fresh flavor and it adds protein itself, so I think it's got a lot going for it," she said. "They're fresh."
The neighboring state of Minnesota actually has a sizeable edamame crop, but before Iowa could begin large scale production, there is a missing link: a vegetable processing plant to blanch and freeze the fresh soybeans.
While stakeholders work on that, farmer Ray Gaesser was encouraged after the field trip.
"Everyone said they taste so much fresher than the ones they buy in the store from China," he said.
And Gaesser did some rough numbers on his crop yield up to 8,000 pounds of shelled edamame per acre. At retail, that's $48,000.