You wouldn’t think there’s much in 50 acres of soybeans to draw a small group of people, including a U.S. Congressman, to a bean field in Logan County on a hot August day.
That’s what happened last week when a group that included U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, State Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, and State Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, visited 50 acres of soybeans being grown by Jessica Hamilton in the McLean Bottoms north of Paris.
The variety is called edamame and it’s being produced commercially in Arkansas in a partnership that includes local growers and the American Vegetable Soybean and Edamame, Inc. of Mulberry. Last year the company finished building a plant to process the beans in Mulberry. Edamame is popular overseas and is used in oriental cooking. Its popularity in the U.S. is growing, according to Raymond Chung, Vice President and CFO of AVSE, who accompanied the lawmakers on the field trip.
Last year, Mike Schluterman, who farms a lot of land in the bottoms, grew 50 acres of edamame. This year, he increased his edamame acreage to almost 300 and Hamilton joined the group of growers planting the crop in the River Valley.
"We were very pleased with what happened last year and increased our acreage this year," Schluterman said.
AVSE supplies growers with the seed, pickers and technical advice. The grower has to irrigate the fields, Chung said.
"There are a lot of farmers here who are creative and open to new things," he told the lawmakers on the visit. "Growers like Jessica Hamilton are willing to listen to us."
According to Chung, soybeans are a $2.6 billion market and the edamame market is between $175 million and $200 million and growing. The market for the product is growing about 10 percent per year, according to Chung. "It has the potential to become a very big business," he said.
Right now, 95 percent of the U.S. market in edamame is imported. But AVSE is trying to change that.
"Right now, we’re working with a pretty tight group of farmers, a select group," he said.
"We want to get to the point where we can export the product," Chung told the lawmakers, "but we have way more demand than we can meet right now."
Chung’s company imported edamame for 10 year before working on building a network of domestic growers.
"We’ve always wanted to find a domestic source," he said. "We’ve been one of the leading importers of frozen edamame for some time."