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Patricia Stansbury, long interested in sustainable agriculture, quit her job last year to spread the edamame gospel from a 3-acre farmstead in Bon Air. Epic Gardens is her business -- "an unfolding story with length, depth and charm," reads its Web site — and her farm now extends to bean fields in Suffolk. And, potentially, to gardens near you.

Stansbury sells edamame beans to cooks, stores and restaurants, and now she's selling seeds so customers can grow their own. This, she says, will bring better food to people at a lower cost to the environment. "More people are recognizing the importance of feeding themselves without being attached to the breast of our progress monster," she says. Simple, unprocessed foods are healthiest.

Next we'll learn how to say "quinoa" and "seitan": Edamame (pronounced edda-MAH-may), is singular and plural, like deer. It's Japanese for beans on the branch.

Not the same as a boiled peanut: "I usually say it's kind of nutty and sweet," Stansbury says of the subtle flavor, suggesting that customers try them boiled and shelled in salads, succotash, stir-fries and soups, or simply boiled, salted and popped out of the shell as a snack.

Why your body should care: Edamame is a vegetable-type soybean that is easily digested and nutritious. Half a cup of shelled beans has 120 calories, 9 grams of fiber, 11 grams of protein and 2.5 grams of fat. "They are satisfying and delicious and kids love them, and they're full of vitamins, minerals and beneficial oils," Stansbury says. While they're most popular in Japan, you can find them in a few restaurants here, sushi places like Sticky Rice and Kobe as well as Dd33 Asian Bistro and Lucky Buddha.

How these are different from the frozen kind in grocery stores: Stansbury's interest began when she tasted her first local edamame beans five years ago. They were cultivars being researched by Virginia State University professor Dr. Tadesse Mebrahtu, who develops plants that grow well in this region's soils and climate and are pest- and disease-resistant. "So often this research never sees the light of day," Stansbury says, "but I wanted to introduce these plants to the public — they're delicious. The scientists are doing brilliant work, selecting the qualities that make a plant grow well here, but too often they're in the shadows." Frozen beans are usually grown in the Pacific Rim, costly to ship and don't have the same nuanced flavor of local beans.

Grow your own: Epic Gardens is selling edamame seeds for the 2008 growing season that are developed for this area to be high-yield, high-quality and low-maintenance. Some plants produce a pound of beans each. Hardy shells keep them viable for several weeks, Stansbury says, and the seeds are grouped by maturity so that growers can have a long, continuous yield throughout the season. Harvest is in progress this month.

Cows in the way: "We grow a huge amount of soybeans in the world, but they are going to animal feed," Stansbury says. "But if we cut out that middle cow, we can eat lower on the food chain. You don't have to have a cow to process the edamame with hormones and flesh."

Point of sale: Starting this month, a dozen Ukrop's stores are carrying Epic Gardens' edamame, in addition to local farmers' markets and Good Foods Grocery. Visit www.epicgardens.com for details. S

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