An 'Edible’ Idea

11/3/2012 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

Cooperative Researches Edible Soybean Viability

LANDISVILLE, Pa. — Chesapeake Fields has been successfully selling edible soybeans for Maryland producers for several years, but the demand for Mid-Atlantic soybeans is outstripping the supply.

The question the marketing cooperative has now is how would these bean varieties grow in Pennsylvania? To find out, it turned to Penn State’s research farm in Landisville.

Pat Boova, director of Chesapeake Fields, said the attraction for local beans is simple — shipping costs.

Most edible soybeans, which are used to produce tofu, bean sprouts and the Japanese fermented dish natto, come from grain states such as North Dakota. And with rising transportation costs, locally grown beans have become more attractive.

Edible soybean varieties marketed through Chesapeake Fields are not genetically modified, which reflects the requirements of processors, in contrast to much of the soybeans grown for livestock feed, which are modified, or GMO, varieties.

“Edible soybeans make up 6 percent of bean production,” Boova said.

Although that may not seem like much, when you consider the American Soybean Association pegs annual U.S. soybean production at 2.85 billion bushels, 6 percent is still a significant volume of production, he said.

Exploring ways to capture a larger share of that 6 percent, Chesapeake Fields has been working with Penn State Extension to conduct growing trials with three of its non-GMO varieties.

The three varieties, based on season length, were planted May 23, according to Allyssa Collins, director of the Penn State Southeastern Research Farm in Landisville.

Two of the varieties are scheduled for harvest this week. The third, a longer-season variety more commonly grown in Virginia, will be harvested at a later date.

The varieties were also planted at Penn State’s Rock Springs research farm.

“This study went in when we got some early rain,” Collins said, which meant the crop got off to a great start compared with other research plots that were planted at a later date and had poor emergence.

“At this point in the season, it is highly dependent on when the bean matures,” she said.

Boova said the soybeans garner a premium for the tofu processors, but the cooperative needs to see if there is a production drag compared with conventional varieties.

If there is a drag, he said, Chesapeake Fields might need to re-evaluate the premium costs.

The processors are interested in buying more local beans because they just sold soybeans to a Massachusetts sprout maker, which traditionally has purchased from North Dakota.

The research will tell the cooperative what is required for a productive model on a Pennsylvania farm, Boova said.

Based on sales of $15 per bushel of soybeans, he said, the gross revenue per acre for non-GMO beans is $737 compared with $675 for GMO beans.

“Growers in the Mid-Atlantic have to recognize we are close to the manufacturing centers. The board is trying to figure out the price elasticity of the beans,” Boova said.

Freeman Evans has been growing about 100 acres of edible beans, or about one-third of his soybean crop, in Kent County, Md. He also raises conventional grain crops on other farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“There is an amazingly large market for tofu,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity (because) transportation is becoming such a problem, costwise.”

In all, the cooperative has 2,700 acres planted by its 19 members.

“The big thing is, you have to use agronomic practices you used 10 to 15 years ago,” Evans said, explaining one difference between growing edible and conventional soybeans.

“It’s mostly old technology, you just have to brush up on it and go back to it,” he said.

Another challenge is keeping things clean to avoid GMO contamination. Evans said processors have a very sensitive GMO test, and one contract specifies a tolerance of 0.02 percent.

“You can’t have contamination,” he said.

The other part of “cleanliness” is the color of the beans. Some soybeans make a naturally lighter or darker tofu, and buyers will seek out beans to create a particular color or type of product.

Growers also have to watch out for bean staining. Last year, Evans had purple staining in some of his soybean fields because of the late rains. Staining can also change the color of the tofu.

Boova said that edible soybean farmers, like their produce counterparts, will be signing GAP, or good agricultural practices, agreements to verify the management practices on their farms.

Still, both Boova and Evans said many soybean farmers may want to try growing edible beans because it’s a niche product that would not require any new equipment.

Results of the edible bean trials will be included with 2012 Penn State Soybean Variety Test, which will be available in a few months.

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