by Chris Bahn
Posted 2/4/2013 12:00 am
Updated 3 months ago
Mulberry is situated between exits 20 and 24 off Interstate 40. Proximity to larger communities — Ozark is 14 miles to the east and Alma 12 miles to the west — often makes Mulberry an afterthought for motorists traveling through the Arkansas River Valley.
There is reason to believe, however, the overlooked town of 1,655 will soon become the centerpiece of edamame production in the United States. American Vegetable Soybean & Edamame Inc., owned by JYC International of Houston, opened one of the country’s first edamame processing plants there in July.
AVSE had been working with the University of Arkansas to develop edamame — young, green soybeans popular in Asian cooking — that could be grown and harvested in the United States. Relationships developed through that process led to the company setting up shop in the state and building a 30,000-plus-SF facility worth more than $5 million in Mulberry’s industrial park.
Access to I-40 provides for easy shipping of the product across the country. Nearby farmland offers ideal growing conditions for the product pronounced “edda-MAH-may.”
“Working with university representatives, we were able to get introductions to key growers in the area and state development agencies who helped us secure funding,” AVSE co-owner and CFO Raymond Chung said. “The city of Mulberry was incredibly supportive, giving us land on which we built the plant. This is why we chose the location that we did.”
Soybeans have been a staple crop for Arkansas farmers for years. More than 3 million acres are harvested in the state, but until last year edamame was not included in those figures.
That should change, thanks to AVSE efforts in Mulberry. Chung’s father, J.Y. “Gene” Chung, has expressed his hope to make Mulberry the edamame capital of the country and, perhaps, the world.
Edamame has been popular in Asian countries for years. The young soybean pods are low in carbohydrates but high in protein and fiber. Proponents of soy products point to a number of other health benefits, including studies that claim reduced risk for heart disease.
Consumption of edamame is growing in the U.S., but production has been mostly handled outside the country. According to a study published on Non-GMOReport.com, a site dedicated to organic and non-genetically modified organisms, 97 percent of edamame consumed in the United States is imported from China and other Asian countries. Recent breakthroughs in growth and harvesting have made edamame easier to produce locally.
Raymond Chung said edamame is planted like a conventional soybean but “harvested and processed like a vegetable.” Following harvest, the beans are blanched and individually quick-frozen. The product is stored in a nearby community until retail orders need to be filled.
How many orders were filled and how much edamame made its way through the Mulberry facility is unknown. Chung declined to get specific, but acknowledged production is expected to grow this year. A 2012 release from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture regarding the facility said the company had contracted with local farmers to grow about 900 acres of edamame. That production, according to the release, could double for 2013.
Landing AVSE, which reportedly employs close to 50, has been big for Mulberry. It’s given additional life to the tiny Crawford County town, which until recently has perhaps been best known for its Bluff Hole Park on the Mulberry River.
Mayor Gary Baxter proudly points out the recent completion of a $1 million senior activity center. Across the street is a city park being developed on 12.5 acres. Other companies, like Hausner’s, a precast concrete company that specializes in storm shelters, have recently moved into the town’s industrial park, and Baxter said a poultry producer based in Mexico owns 100 acres in Mulberry.
It is Baxter’s hope that AVSE will thrive and encourage other manufacturers to consider the town.
“AVSE has impacted Mulberry in a great, positive way,” Baxter said. “And when you get one thing going, there’s the potential for another, then another. People are going to find out we are in a great location.”