Jacob MacKellar arrives bearing a tangled armload of Ontario edamame still on the vine.
“This is fresh — right from the field,” says the fourth-generation farmer, handing over the bright green bundle followed by a mason jar of his mom Annette’s salsa.
The items aren’t connected (there’s no edamame in the salsa) except that they both come from his family’s Alvinston farm southwest of London and showcase what two generations of MacKellars do best when it comes to food.
The MacKellars have been farming since the 1800s, mostly grain and other commodity crops. About five years ago, Jacob, who is just 26 and the youngest of three sons, decided that he “wanted to grow something that consumers wanted.”
He seized on edamame.
Canadians learned to love the green soybean in the pod from Japanese restaurants. We’ve been eagerly buying the high-fibre legume frozen, in the pod and shelled, not realizing that nearly all of it is grown in China.
“We try not to get too political about it,” says MacKellar during a visit to the Startest kitchen. “But we want to help people realize that there is a high quality, Canadian-grown alternative.”
His first harvest was in 2010 and his edamame started appearing in Toronto stores in 2011. His family was skeptical at first, but MacKellar Farms edamame is now sold in 350 natural food stores across Canada.
This year, MacKellar is farming 300 acres of edamame and expects to harvest one million pounds. It will all be frozen. Thirty per cent of it will be packaged for sale in Canada under the MacKellar Farms label, and the rest will be sold in bulk to the United States.
“It’s been a huge learning experience, this whole thing,” enthuses MacKellar. “It’s just fun. I essentially walk the fields every day all summer.” He plants in May and June, and harvests in late August and September using a snapping green bean harvester. His edamame is frozen within six hours and packaged at a cold-storage facility in Ingersoll.
Foodland Ontario estimates that about 500 acres of Ontario edamame is being grown commercially. Some gets sold fresh, but most is frozen and sold year round.
Edamame (Glycine max) is a vegetable soybean that is harvested at an immature stage. Edamame varieties aren’t the same as standard, field-grown soybean varieties that are harvested when dry and mature, and then fed to cattle or turned into things like cooking oil.
There have been numerous edamame research projects in Ontario over the last four years, and there are at least two other local edamame brands on the market.
Jason Persall grows edamame at his Waterford farm. He will harvest almost 100,000 pounds this year and sell almost all of it through foodservice channels, though he hopes to expand his retail presence.
Persall does sell Pristine Gourmet edamame at some Rowe Farms and at the Evergreen Brick Works Farmers’ Market every other Saturday.
Another frozen Ontario option is Just Chillin’ Easy Going Edamame. On the market for two years, this edamame comes from several Ontario suppliers and growers. The packages come with a Foodland Ontario endorsement.
MacKellar puts a “Grown in Canada” logo and red maple leaf on his packages. He says he’s getting verified by the Non-GMO Project.
As for actually eating what he grows, MacKellar prefers his edamame boiled and eaten warm and from the pod, “no salt, no anything” because he’s usually comparing varieties and harvest dates. But he has emailed me a half dozen favourite recipes and I’ve chosen an easy Asian one to make during his visit.
I’ve got all the ingredients measured and laid out — except for the actual edamame, which MacKellar brings — and want to leave the actual cooking up to the farmer.
“I can’t say I’m the best cook,” he admits, “but I’m the best edamame grower.” He’s fiercely proud of the size, colour and taste of his edamame.
The Black Bean-Orange Peel Edamame recipe, from popular American website Food52.com, doesn’t give MacKellar any trouble.
It’s sensational. The intense Asian flavours are an inspired complement to the fresh Ontario edamame.
We end by comparing ways to eat edamame. I usually pop my pods open with my fingers, but MacKellar drags the pods through his teeth to suck on the flavour from the inedible pods.
“Sorry for talking with my mouth full,” he says, grinning.