The American Sweet Bean Co. of Old Fort now is the sole domestic supplier to Seapoint Farms, the largest edamame distributor in the nation.
"It's pretty exciting. We're the U.S. grower processor for them," said Charles Fry, president of the local company. "We have a multi-year deal with Seapoint. They seem to be the right partner."
Seapoint Farms of Huntington Beach, Calif., boasts 45-50 percent market share for the soybean product, which is eaten green as a vegetable. Up until now, Seaport has imported all of its edamame from China.
"We've been interested in aligning with a domestic supplier that could demonstrate they had the experience and capabilities to grow a quality edamame soybean," said Phil Siegel, chief operating officer for Seapoint Farms. "When we first contacted Charles, we were just looking to touch base and explore where he was at and what his objectives were. The more we spoke, the more we realized that each party could focus on their core strengths and partner to maximize the product potential."
"It's pretty exciting being able to focus on growing the best bean we can, processing the best bean and flat-out beating the Chinese," Fry said. "The amount of experience that Seapoint has developed in the retail channel would take us at least 10 years to reproduce."
The new contract means American Sweet Bean has a lot of growing to do.
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"The ink's dry on the contract and now we got to deliver," Fry said. "I'm going to hang up my salesman hat and put on my farmer's hat.
"We currently produce less than 5 percent of their annual volume," he said. "The essential goal is to double every year for the next three years."
Fry is looking for farmers in Seneca and Sandusky counties interested in adding edamame to their crop rotation. It's a direct substitute for traditional soybeans.
Anybody interested in getting involved now should call him as soon as possible.
"We need land and we need farmers," he said. "For the region, it really cements us as the primary growing area for this crop. We need several hundred acres this year and an additional several thousand acres more next year."
Fry said he is open to renting land or contracting with farmers in increments of at least 50 acres.
"By the 2014 crop year, we'll probably be in the 2,000-4,000 acre range, if not more," he said.
After the spring planting season, he plans to host an information session for farmers interested in learning more.
"Even at the current soybean prices, you'll make more money," he said. "All they have to do is plant it and keep the weeds out. We do the harvesting."
The crop is harvested in late August or early September.
"If they want to follow with wheat, it's perfect," he said.
It's also a good choice for farmers interested in growing food for direct human consumption, he added.
Fry said he and his father, Jerry, started growing edamame five years ago as an alternative crop, and had visions of seeing American Sweet Bean as a brand name in grocery stores.
"So that was really the only thing we had to think about," Fry said. "Do we want to put on hold seeing American Sweet Bean bags in the stores."
But the option of becoming a supplier made sense, he said.
"They approached us really out of the blue," Fry said. "It was a strange sort of happening because we had just received a commitment from a large national dealer, which we ended up canceling with."
Since last fall, Fry had been courting national retail outlets across the United States.
"There's been a lot of interest, but no firm deals," he said.
In March, Fry said he got a call from Kevin Cross, one of the founders of Seapoint Farms.
"It's a little strange when your biggest competitor calls you up and wants to chat," he said. "But I believe it's important to listen to everybody."
Siegel said the call was exploratory.
"Seapoint speaks regularly with people and companies that are involved with edamame production, both here and abroad," Siegel said. "Charles Fry is a name that has come up over the course of the past several years."
As the edamame market continues to grow, Cross related a need for a domestic supplier.
"They know customers want a U.S. product," Fry said. "And they asked if we were interested in being their supplier."