City kid detours to Ohio State, now known as leader of soybean genetics

URBANA, Ill. — At age 83, when many people have long since retired, University of Illinois researcher Richard Bernard unveiled his 14th variety of Gardensoy edamame.

Bernard has been breeding soybeans and edamame, or vegetable soybeans, since 1954. And he has no intentions of stopping.

After the release of Gardensoy 51, he is looking ahead to his next projects: developing varieties that have higher protein content, higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acid, and creating varieties that do not have the genes that cause allergic reactions.

Tasted as a boy

Bernard’s fascination with edamame began in the 1930s and 1940s when edible soybeans were a popular vegetable being pushed in the United States for their nutritive value.

“As a boy, I was curious and tried them,” Bernard said. “I’ve been enjoying them ever since.

“The first varieties I tried were Etum and Tastee, and they are still among my favorites.”

What are soybeans?

A city kid from Detroit, Bernard grew up working in an auto factory before joining the Army. After the war, he was hitchhiking through southwestern Illinois when a farmer stopped and picked him up.

“The farmer mentioned soybeans, and I had to ask what they were,” Bernard said. “He hit the brakes and made me go out in the field and take a look. That was my first experience with soybeans.

“Little did that farmer know what he was starting when he stopped the truck and took me out into that field.”

Bernard went on to obtain his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Ohio State University, and his Ph.D. from North Carolina State University where he studied peanuts.

At NC State, he worked next door to Herbert Johnson who was leading USDA soybean breeding efforts nationwide at the time. Johnson later hired Bernard as a USDA research agronomist at the University of Illinois, where he coordinated northern regional testing for soybean varieties and became the curator of the U.S. Germplasm Collection.

You probably planted his work

“I developed varieties of soybeans for Illinois farmers,” Bernard said. “The majority of Midwest acres planted in the 1960s and 1970s were my varieties.”

One accomplishment in particular stood out in Bernard’s mind.

“Back then, a cultivar named ‘Harosoy’ was widely grown,” he said. “It was probably the most susceptible to Phytophthora root rot — a devastating disease that had recently hit the area.”

Bernard backcrossed in a gene for resistance to the disease, resulting in Harosoy 63. This variety saved farmers a lot of money.

Edamame hobby

In the 1980s, he began breeding edamame as a hobby with a goal to develop “especially good eating” large-seeded edamame with higher protein content.

“People are harder to change than soybeans… people have been slower to accept edamame, despite its great taste and nutritional value.”

He also wanted to develop edamame that would grow well in Illinois.

“Large-seeded edamame have a better mouth feel for eating,” Bernard explained. “Those varieties mainly come from Japan and Korea, but they tend to be prone to shattering and susceptible to diseases. I wanted to create edamame varieties with improvement in those areas.”

Bernard released the first six edamame varieties in 2000, followed by seven more in 2002. He named them Gardensoy with numbers following to reflect the soybean maturity group and release order.

His latest release, classified in soybean maturity group V, adds a later-maturing variety to the mix and will be the last one to harvest before the frost hits.

“For years, I mailed out free seed packets for people to grow Gardensoy in their home gardens,” he said. “Most people have a hobby that cost them money. I consider that the price of mine.”

Consumer education

Overcoming misconceptions about eating soybeans has been Bernard’s greatest challenge in breeding edamame over the years.

“People are harder to change than soybeans,” Bernard said. “In the Midwest, people have been slower to accept edamame, despite its great taste and nutritional value.”

As more and more people learn about the great taste, convenience and nutritional benefits of this complete protein vegetable, demand for edamame has increased. However, most of the demand has been met through the import of product from China, said Theresa Herman, U of I research specialist.

Due to harvesting and storage challenges, only a few operations in the United States are currently producing edamame on a large scale. However, consumer interest is quickly increasing along with the number of farmers growing edamame to sell at farmer’s markets.

“The U.S. edamame industry has yet to take off in a big way, but with increasing demand, sustainability of local production is more and more likely,” Herman said.

“As more edamame are grown and consumed in the U.S., it remains to be seen whether the Gardensoy varieties will be chosen favorites. However, Dr. Bernard will always be in the group of pioneers who saw the potential of this crop in the U.S. — for human health and for grower profit.”

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