Irene Adams cooks supper for husband, Luke, and 2-year-old son, Cole, at their home in Fayetteville, Ark. She used to serve lots of green beans, but switched to edamame after tasting it at a local restaurant.
"[Cole] used to split his green beans and take out the little seeds inside," Adams says. "So I told Luke we should try edamame, because it's bigger seeds and has more flavor, so that's why we decided to try it and he loves it."
Cole squeezes the bright green buttery beans out of the pod and pops them into his mouth. Edamame, it turns out, is a healthy finger food, high in fiber and protein.
China produces most of the world's edamame, handpicking and processing it there. Now lots of locally grown edamame are being packed in the town of Mulberry, Ark. Fresh-picked pods jiggle across a massive high-speed conveyor for automated sorting, washing, blanching and flash freezing.
A Texas-based Asian foods importer chose Arkansas to build its company, called American Vegetable Soybean and Edamame Inc., here. Raymond Chung, the chief financial officer, says one reason is because plenty of local farmers are willing to grow the non-genetically modified vegetable soybeans.
"The bulk of soybeans in the U.S. are [genetically-modified] and grown for industrial purposes, but edamame is a special variety," he says.
Arkansas ranks tenth nationally for conventional soybeans and is the first to develop an edamame variety licensed for commercial production.
"Most people when I tell them about edamame and say it's really a soybean, they are shocked," she says. "They just feel like it's a vegetable ... it's a more familiar food to them than maybe tofu or soymilk."
Like tofu, edamame is widely available in many major supermarket chains supplied by smaller producers in California, Minnesota and Ohio. The Soyfoods Association of North America says frozen edamame sales grew 4.3 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Arkansas processor Chung intends to be the top link in the chain. Since his factory opened last summer production has doubled. He now supplies Costco, Whole Foods and Sam's Clubs. "We are turning Arkansas into the edamame capital of the U.S. and eventually the capital of the world," he says.
And if Chung can get Cole Adams and millions of other kids to eat their vegetables? The town of Mulberry may have to change its name to edamame.