Norm Chambers hasn't grown conventional soybeans since 1988. That's when he sent his first 20-ton container of food-grade soybeans overseas to discerning Japanese buyers.

More than 125 years after his forefathers first settled his Corwith, IA, homestead, he and son Jonathan also market their own Laura brand edible soybeans to the health-conscious domestic market.

Chambers first developed contacts in Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Japan as an American Soybean Association (ASA) director involved in trade development. “When the Japanese delegation was in the U.S., I invited them to see our farm,” Chambers says. “They value the personal business relationship, and seeing where and how their food is grown.

“Fortunately, we had a Japanese foreign exchange student, Chiaki Terada, living with us who helped me write Japanese e-mails and learn a new culture,” he says. His first container of edible soybeans was marketed under the Fairview Farms brand and was well received.

Over time, orders grew steadily to 250 containers a year. These days, Chambers Farms averages about 50 containers annually due to increased price pressure from other exporters selling to the Japanese market. He sees no value in selling below a price that justifies his efforts.

Recently, a shortage of edible soybeans has surfaced, so things may swing back the other way.(See sidebar at right.)

Ten years later, former exchange student Terada returned to the Chambers farm for three years to help them further develop their export business.

The Chambers' Japanese customers return almost every year to tour the fields and packaging facilities. “We strengthen our mutual rapport as they meet our growers and walk the fields,” Chambers says.

“They prefer a specific high-protein large food bean,” says Jonathan Chambers. In the early years, this was the Vinton variety, which conferred about a 20% yield drag.

Since the Chambers' first year growing 600 acres of Vinton, they've developed a network of a few growers to provide the special non-biotech bean. And they've relied upon Iowa State University Plant Breeder Walter Fehr to develop more productive food-bean varieties.

“It's our job to match specific variety characteristics with each customer's needs,” Chambers says.

Oddly enough, it was Chambers' Japanese customers who suggested that he add a domestic leg to his marketing stool, and so they developed Laura and Tosteds brands edible soybeans for the American market.

Available in five flavors, Tosteds are dry-roasted and packaged for snacking. They are sold mainly through Fareway Stores and on the Web. The Chambers promote Tosteds' high protein, fiber, isoflavones, antioxidants and Omega-3 healthy oils. Their Web site chronicles the planting of their crop and its wholesome growing conditions. “Consumers have grown more interested in where their food comes from, so we tell them,” Jonathan says. (See www.tosteds.com).

THE TOSTEDS ENTERPRISE evolved from their kitchen convection oven. Once they fine-tuned the dry-roasting process, the Chambers invested about $300,000 in commercial-scale roasting and flavor-coating equipment and a building to house it. They chose not to invest in an automated packaging line, opting to do it by hand.

The market feedback is that Tosteds are light and crunchy with a greater shelf life than competing brands of roasted soybeans.

“We still need to work on our merchandising,” Chambers says.

Chambers Farms' Fairfield Farms brand also markets Laura edible soybeans, “the world's best food-quality bulk soybeans, ideal for making soy milk and tofu,” their www.fairviewfarms.com Web site says. They are available by mail in 13-lb. up through pallet sizes domestically.

The manufacturer of a soymilk machine boosts their marketing by including samples of Laura soybeans with its new machines.

The Chambers package Tosteds and Laura soybeans at their farm after they're cleaned at a nearby plant. They involved the appropriate Iowa and federal food safety agencies in their facility design to ensure proper sanitation standards. Those agencies can arrive at the farm unannounced any time for inspections.

BEAN BASICS

Japanese consumers prefer a larger, higher-protein bean than what most American growers produce. Norm Chambers, Corwith, IA, relied upon Iowa State University (ISU) Plant Breeder Walter Fehr to develop a variety with better yields and the requisite protein and size qualities.

The Japanese import food-grade soybeans containing 43% protein (rather than 38%), and measuring about one-third larger in diameter. And their hylums are yellow instead of black or brown.

ISU's higher-yielding edible soybeans, such as IA3027, yield 10 bu./acre more than the old standby edible varieties such as Vinton.

DEMAND FOR EDIBLE BEANS

It's getting harder to find enough acres to fill the demand for non-biotech edible soybeans, says Paul Burke, director of global marketing and industry relations for the U.S. Soybean Export Council.

“Demand for traditional soyfoods (such as tofu and miso) in Japan is static at best, as their population ages and consumption falls,” he says. “Also, the Japanese consumer views traditional soyfood products as inexpensive and resists higher prices. At the same time, farmers worldwide are reluctant to grow non-biotech soybeans due to the ease of Roundup Ready technology and the perceived yield drag of edible soybeans.”

Selling food-grade soybeans to Japan is a “different ballgame now,” says Jonathan Chambers, a 20-year-veteran of exporting edible beans overseas from his family's Corwith, IA, farm. “The younger generation of Japanese is eating at McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Subway, Denny's and KFC instead of at ma and pa tofu shops.”

A more optimistic note on demand is sounded in a recent United Soybean Board (USB) press release. “Demand for enhanced-quality soybeans is continually increasing, but production acreage is not meeting the demand, culminating in higher prices,” it says. Annually, 60 million bushels of soybeans are exported at a premium for food-grade uses, USB says.

“The demand is significant,” says Bob Sinner, president of SB&B Foods, which has supply contracts with farmers in five states. “The real issue is having enough supply to meet the demand for food manufacturers.”

Todd Hansen, an Owatonna, MN, edible-bean grower, says his premiums are anywhere from 60¢ to $3.50/bu. over CBOT prices.

Comparing Brazil as a possible alternate supplier, Burke observes, “We have not seen Brazil being willing to invest in the storage facilities necessary to segregate identity-preserved soybeans, nor to abandon the labor-saving advantages of biotech varieties. That doesn't mean they won't be in the future.”