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Minnesota soybeans sprouting up in Korean kitchens

The usable portion of Goldkim soybean sprouts measures approximately six inches. (Forum News Service photo)

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- A Minnesota soybean is tipping the global import/export business in the region's favor. Six years ago, Alexandria resident and former farmer Craig Damstrom fostered an idea to develop a cash crop in the area - not the legume itself, but its seed.

Damstrom said the U.S., Argentina and Brazil export soybeans, which adds a much needed north and south exchange in addition to the usual east to west from China. Soy seeds are in high demand in South Korea since China has been exporting less and consuming more of its own product, Damstrom explained.

Through a partnership with Henry Kim, president of United Soy Food, Goldkim soybeans were born. Kim said a lot of shipping containers come into the U.S. from Korea, China and Japan full and return about 70 percent empty.

"We use those containers for a low rate," Kim explained.

Goldkim is a nongenetically modified soybean. A lot of farmers have been planting genetically modified, or GMO, beans and corn that have an anti-pest gene combined with the seed's DNA. Some people are reluctant to adopt a scientifically altered food substance into their diets, which is why Damstrom emphasized that his development not be tainted.

"Even though it's insecticidal or poisonous to insects and not to man," Damstrom said, "there are still people who have concerns about GMO worldwide."

Damstrom farmed 1,500 acres outside Alexandria for almost 25 years. In 2007, he introduced non-GMO soybeans to his land. He tested five plots and one variety would later be known as Goldkim.

"Producing and raising food grade soybeans is not the norm in this area," Damstrom said.

Dr. Jim Orf from the University of Minnesota is credited with developing the soybean variety that had the necessary characteristics sought by the Asian market.

"It's a niche market," said consultant Del Glanzer.

Glanzer has worked with Damstrom on Goldkim and other development projects in the past. Glanzer's Consulting has been operating in the Alexandria area since 1976.

Glanzer compared Goldkim to alfalfa sprouts, but larger. Goldkim is a type of natto soybean, a specialty bean that is known for sprouting. The bean is used in soups, salads and eaten solo.

"We're going to see a plethora of new foods coming out of soybeans because the applications for them are so diverse," Damstrom said. Some varieties are starting to show up in U.S. grocery stores.

Women still rule the kitchens in most Korean households. "It's Korean culture that women shop in the supermarket and prepare meals," Kim said. "But nowadays, many young men also prepare meals; just not a high percentage."

Damstrom said Korean housewives want a soybean that has a high germination rate that can grow a long thin stalk. The thinner a stalk, the more concentrated the nutrients.

Goldkim seeds produce a stalk reaching 6 inches in height and have a 97 percent germination rate.The seeds from Minnesota are smaller than those typically exported from China, Damstrom said. Glanzer said they are about half the size of a "normal" soybean.

A Korean family might eat 340 to 680 seeds a day. Seeds are purchased dry and spread out in germination pots about the size of a shoe box until they are ready to be harvested.

A traditional Japanese preparation for natto is made by fermenting soybeans in Bacillus subtilis. The end result is a sticky, slimy, pungent smelling, stringy, acquired-taste probiotic food.

Natto is often eaten with sugar or over rice for breakfast. It's low in calories, high in protein and contains vitamin K and antioxidants. Natto is also rumored to be a hangover remedy.

Although Damstrom has not been to South Korea, he had traveled with Kim to China to explore the markets. Damstrom and his wife, Kathy, tried a soup made with natto seeds during Kim's recent visit to Alexandria.

"We liked it," he confessed.

United Soy Food has an office in Alexandria and headquarters in New Jersey. Kim spends much of his time in South Korea.

Damstrom has sold his farm but remains dedicated to spreading the word to area farmers. He said the rate of return is high. Goldkim will purchase the seed for $20 a bushel. One bushel, 60 pounds, can yield 336,000 seeds.

"These beans have been grown in this area," Damstrom said. "Basically, a lot of the beans have come from the Murdock area, but there is production in this area as well."

Falk's Seed Farm in Murdock, about an hour's drive south of Alexandria, prepares the soy seed for export to South Korea. Falk's has been handling food grade soybeans for more than 20 years.

"The viability of the seed is very important," Damstrom said. Beans that are harvested at 14 to 15 percent moisture produce the best sprouting rates.

Farmers interested in learning more about Goldkim soy seeds can call Craig Damstrom at (651) 270-2943, Falk's Seed Farm at (320) 875-4341, Del Glanzer at (320) 760-2149 or Henry Kim at (201) 482-4951.