A trip to a tasty salad bar can include edamame, a small baby lima-looking vegetable that is actually an edible soybean packed with protein.

Consumption of the crunchy green bean is rapidly increasing in the United States, Japan and China. U.S. production of the bean is currently limited to about 1,000 acres nationwide, mostly in Ohio and Kentucky.

Edamame is a potential crop in low desert farm fields in Arizona and California, according to Mike Rethwisch, Extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Butler County, Neb.

“I think edamame is a great crop opportunity in the desert Southwest,” Rethwisch said. “We can grow it here and have it ready for the fresh market when no one else in the U.S. can.”

Rethwisch is no stranger to Western agriculture. He served about 18 years as a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor stationed in Blythe and as a University of Arizona Extension agent in Yuma and La Paz counties. He moved to Nebraska about three years ago.

Rethwisch discussed several bean crops worth consideration in desert agriculture during the 2010 Southwest Agricultural Summit in March.

“Japanese markets prefer edamame sold as the entire plant or in the pod preferably in 25-pound bundles,” Rethwisch said. “The Chinese prefer fresh-shelled beans with two to three beans per pod.”

Rethwisch believes the desert could be a prime location for edamame production. The greater Yuma area has the labor, coolers, and other services for winter lettuce production. The key with edamame, Rethwisch says, is to harvest the crop and quickly cool the pods.

“Mechanical equipment is available to harvest the crop, but machine bruising can reduce the saleable pods by about 25 percent,” Rethwisch said. “Edamame is best harvested by hand. The entire stalk has considerable value in the Japanese market base. Net returns can bring $400-$1,300 per acre.”

Edamame production is not for the faint of heart due to high production costs. The growing season is 90-120 days. Edamame is susceptible to frost and freeze. It can be grown in the same production window as green beans in the low desert with an early spring harvest following a late winter planting.