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Sustainable Agriculture

Keen on Beans: Nutritious Fresh Soybean a Community, Farmer Favorite

A soybean that can be eaten fresh and is best known as a snack with a nutritional punch is at the heart of an effort in western Kentucky to improve health and diversify farmer options in the wake of declining tobacco prices. The edamame soybean, imported from Asia, leads the appetizer menu of some urban restaurants—herbed, steamed, and served in the pod. Kentucky grower Sara McNulty, with help from the University of Kentucky (UK), has changed that upscale perception to make it a popular, healthy meal ingredient, with support from two SARE grants.

McNulty stumbled onto the bean’s potential when she was growing a test plot on her 1,700-acre crop farm for a company that wanted dried beans for soy-based products. “The kids and I were out in the field and we got hungry and started eating them green,” she recalled. “They were delicious.” Since that day in 1996, McNulty has made edamame a main focus. She received a SARE producer grant to test growing fresh beans and marketing them.

After McNulty approached them, University of Kentucky Extension educators received one of Southern SARE’s first sustainable community innovation grants to promote edamame as a profitable crop with great health potential. The UK project focused on creating production guidelines—such as seed sources and optimal planting times— and developing markets based on soy health claims.

News of soy’s low-fat, low-cholesterol, and high-protein characteristics helped fuel UK’s nutritional message to heart patients and health care workers. Beyond those groups, they worked with nutrition educators to target consumers, especially teens. In all, UK held 24 educational programs in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. “We wanted to put it on the map, and it surprised us how well it was accepted in the community,” said Tim Woods, a UK marketing specialist.

The bean’s popularity encouraged about a dozen farmers to start growing edamame. They sell the fresh product at local farmers markets and at health food stores, where people buy them by the “bunch”—about two pounds of beans in pods on stems—for between $3 and $5. McNulty still grows them on a small scale to eat at home and supply her local health food store, which she says constantly sells out. “The key to this project has been networking with others—not thinking I could do it all myself,” she said. “It has been a real grassroots, team effort.”

 

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