Seattle Post Intelligencer
By Rebekah Denn
P-I Restaurant Critic

Am I eating a dose of xenophobia and myopia with my edamame tonight, or just a garnish of common sense?

My break-time snack this week comes from Willie Greens Organic Farm of Monroe, retailing for $5.50 a pound at the Lake City Farmers Market.

I started looking for locally grown soybeans after picking up my usual frozen pack at the grocery store. That’s the pack stamped with the banner of Cascadian Farm, carrying a bucolic photo of cropland and mountains, a USDA organic seal and an invitation to “stop by our farm in Rockport, WA” for product information.

And in the small type? “Product of China.”

Looking for alternatives just got me “Woodstock Farms,” advertising certified-organic reverence for the land, a charming line-drawn farmhouse, a distribution address in Connecticut and, again, “Product of China.”

I tried not to feel suckered. It’s old news that trade-offs arise when organic foods are produced on a mass scale. (Cascadian Farms is owned by General Mills; Woodstock Farms is a label of United Natural Foods, a multibillion-dollar company.) But I still held off on edamame for a few months, looking for local options.

The just announced recall of Dole’s Hearts Delight salad mix, as well as last summer’s spinach E. coli outbreak, are warnings that U.S. domestivores aren’t always guaranteed safe food. But sanity must trump political correctness enough to note that U.S. horror stories are fewer and generally milder than China’s, our regulations are arguably better enforced and, in Seattle, we can get a lot of first-hand information on what our farmers harvest.

It turns out Washington’s climate is just fine for growing soybeans. Few do so, though.

“I like it personally as a crop, it’s really delicious. Fresh off the plant, it’s phenomenal, (and) there are a couple of varieties that grow really well here,” said Judy Bennett of Rockridge Orchards in Enumclaw, known for growing exotic produce.

The catch?

“It’s real high on labor — when you start doing the math, it gets really expensive.”

The plants tend to produce and ripen pods at different times over a season, meaning the same knee-high bushes must be hand-harvested several times. (Some farmers uproot the entire plant for the market table, with some hanging pods ripe and others unready, a less-intensive but low-yield tactic.) The plants also can be water hogs. They’re subject to powdery mildew. The beans don’t keep well. The whole recipe encourages importing frozen beans harvested through cheaper labor.

Bennett occasionally rotates edamame through a corner of her garden, but she’s not among the few hardy farmers producing it this year. Those trying it out include Josh Hyatt of Newaukum Valley Farm near Chehalis, who planted a small patch on the request of a chef at Tom Douglas Restaurants. Some of the beans went to Serious Pie and Dahlia Lounge, he said; the rest goes to his table at the Olympia Farmers Market, where it has been a tough sell at $5 a pound. If he had more outlets for it, he said, he’d plant it again despite the extra work it takes. For now, he’ll wait and see.

At Alvarez Farms, which sells at area farmers markets, Eddie Alvarez plants a small crop of about a half-acre because “I just like growing all kinds of strange things.” Customers ask for it, he said, especially at the Columbia City Farmers Market, where there’s a larger Asian population.

“Whatever (customers) ask for,” he said, “that’s what I grow.”

And a few farmers find success offering the beans through Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions, where customers are used to finding oddities in their weekly bags of produce. Those include Chris Llewellyn of Serendipity Farm in Quilcene, who also thinks more farmers would grow such vegetables “if people would buy it at a price that we can live on.”

The local edamame pencils out OK. My frozen imported unshelled beans retailed at $2.99 for 10 ounces, which works out to $4.78 per pound. But what about when the local version is out of season?

I’m not alone in wondering. In a recent Puget Consumers Co-op newsletter, a customer wrote in saying she was distressed to see “Product of China” on her frozen green beans and asked why PCC carried vegetables from China at all. It’s one of many complaints the co-op has received on the topic after this year’s flood of reports of poisonous substances in imported pet food, toothpaste and toys.

PCC replied that it shared the writer’s concerns and is “replacing single-ingredient foods from China — some frozen fruits, frozen vegetables and bulk items — with domestically grown versions, wherever possible.” Multi-ingredient foods are more problematic, PCC wrote, because manufacturers are not required to list the country of origin for ingredients.

PCC’s shelled edamame now come from Minnesota, though it’s still searching for a non-Chinese source of edamame in the pod, spokeswoman Trudy Bialic said.

Bringing some clarity to the question, she said China isn’t necessarily the issue. It’s not always the country where it’s grown that matters, it’s the ability to trace where the food comes from.

During last year’s E. coli scare, “We were able to keep selling spinach,” Bialic said, “because we knew where our spinach was from. We called the USDA, and said, ‘Ours is coming from this farmer in Sequim, is that OK?’ They said, ‘Sure, it’s not from California.’ We had a paper trail.”

Some large companies are voluntarily providing that detailed trail already, and I’m choosing them when I can.

Buy a carton of Organic Valley soy milk, for instance. Go online and enter the carton’s expiration date. A search engine will spit out exactly where the beans in that batch of milk were harvested. Mine, I was told, came from two Iowa farms and one in Wisconsin, with links to each farm’s Web site. I can research those farms all I want. Organic Valley happens to be a U.S.-based co-op, but I like to think the extra information and that sense of place would give me confidence even if the farms it linked to were in Fujian province.

Oh, and the directions on how to find where those Organic Valley soybeans came from are splashed proudly on the side of the carton — in big, bold, we want-you-to-see-this print.

    P-I food writer Rebekah Denn can be reached at 206-448-8117 or [email protected].

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