Editor’s note:  This article, written by Jeanni Brosius, first appeared in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business Arkansas. You can access the complete magazine online at this link.

Mulberry, Arkansas may be a small town, but it knows beans about beans.

Situated just off Interstate 40 in Crawford County, Mulberry is a farming and ranching community with a population of 1,655. It is also home to a growing new industry in the United States, and is being touted as the edamame (pronounced ed-ah-mah’-may) capital of America.

American Vegetable Soybean and Edamame Inc. is the newest addition to the town’s industrial park.

AVSE is owned by JYC International of Houston, and in the summer of 2012, it opened the first edamame processing plant in the country that is solely devoted to the healthful little bean.

“What strikes me about the state is that things here work well – from state agencies and the University of Arkansas right down to the community of Mulberry. People here have been very welcoming and understanding of what it takes to help a small business like ours succeed,” says Raymond Chung, co-owner and CFO of AVSE.

Chung says the company chose Mulberry because of its location and the good infrastructure.

“We are right next to I-40, and we are close to several towns, including Mulberry, where we recruit the labor we need,” says Chung, who will be moving to Arkansas to run the processing plant full-time. “We are also in proximity to our growers in the Arkansas River Valley, which cuts down on the time it takes to haul the crop to our facility to be processed. We also received a lot of support from the community of Mulberry, which provided us the land on which we built the plant.”

Mulberry Mayor Gary Baxter says it’s been great for his community and he is happy that ASVE claims to make Mulberry the edamame capital of the United States, and maybe the world.

“We are a healthy community,” Baxter says about the town that promotes health and wellness to its citizens. “Edamame is very healthy and has a lot of protein. This is really great for Mulberry and the state of Arkansas.”

Although soybeans are currently grown in and around Mulberry, Chung says edamame is different than the beans Arkansans are accustomed to seeing in the fields.

“Edamame are a different variety that have been bred to have big, green pods and larger, sweeter tasting beans,” Chung says. “Although edamame is planted like a conventional soybean, it is harvested while still young, green, and tender, like a vegetable. Our beans are all made with non-genetically modified (NonGMO) seeds.”

Edamame is a popular menu item in Asian restaurants and Chung says there is a certain etiquette to eating the little green beans.

“Edamame are fun to eat, both for kids and for adults,” he says. “The easiest way to eat them is to hold a pod between your fingers and gently squeeze, popping the beans into your mouth. It’s also great to sprinkle a little sea salt on the pods to add some flavor. Be careful though not to eat the pod itself because it’s not edible.”

For Japanese restaurant patron Molly Jones, edamame is a favorite appetizer.

“I love popping the bean in my mouth and tasting the salty pod,” she says as she sits at a table at her favorite sushi place. The server places a bowl of salty, steaming soy bean pods in front of her, and Jones pinches the pod and pops the beans into her mouth. She discards the shell into another bowl.

This unassuming little vegetable is packed full of vitamins and is touted to have all sorts of health benefits. According to an article in the June/July 2002 issue of Mother Earth News, aside from being a great source of quality protein and vitamin E, soy foods contain isoflavones, which seem to play a role in reducing the risk of heart attack, osteoporosis, breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Thanks to processing plants, such as ASVE, edamame is easy to make at home.

“In Arkansas, our edamame are available in Sam’s Clubs in the freezer section under the Imperial Gourmet brand,” Chung says. “We will be rolling out in many more stores, including major natural and organic markets nationwide in the coming months.”

Chung would not disclose the figures publicly of how many acres of edamame the company is expecting to plant, but he did say this year, there will be more than last year. He’s also guarded about employment figures.

However, Mayor Baxter said that in in 2012, 1,000 acres were harvested, and in 2013, 2,000 acres were planted. He says he expects the amount of land dedicated to edamame to reach upwards of 10,000 acres over the next few years.

“There have been about 40 to 50 full-time jobs created,” Baxter says of the processing plant, “plus the seasonal workers.”

ASVE’s parent company, JYC International Inc., was founded in the mid-90s as an import-export company aimed at trading products between the U.S. and the Asian countries. Its founder, J.Y. Chung, is also the founder of Chung’s Gourmet Foods, which has manufactured and distributed Asian packaged foods in the U.S. for more than 20 years.

Since 2002, JYC International has been importing frozen foods from China to the U.S. The imported frozen foods have been directly and indirectly distributed to the U.S. markets such as Costco Wholesale Clubs, Sam’s Club, Golden Corral restaurant chains, major U.S. grocery chains and the oriental food markets.

Raymond Chung says the company’s potential is just in its infancy stage.

“This is a big opportunity to create a new industry in America, and we are excited to be doing it here in Arkansas,” Chung said.

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