It may not amount to a hill of beans for most of us, but for Jacob MacKellar, edamame is the key to his dream.
Edamame? If you've been to a sushi bar, you know it. It's a type of immature soybean, still in the pod. Usually steamed before eating, it can be found in every Japanese and most other Asian restaurants in Canada, as well as health food stores and major supermarkets.
The difference between edamame and a soybean "is like comparing a Royal Gala apple to a crabapple," says Mr. MacKellar.
He wants to be royal himself, with aspirations well beyond that of gentleman farmer.
"We're a family farm," says Mr. MacKellar, 26. As the fourth generation scion of MacKellar Farms in Alvinston, Ont., southwest of London, his goal is to be recognized as Canada's Prince Farming, keeping the farm in the family.
That means working with a crop that, in Ontario at least, is unconventional, and working without a rulebook.
Just 1 per cent of the edamame consumed in Canada is grown here, says Mr. MacKellar. The rest is from China.
It's well known that farming in Canada is a tough, demanding business, and Mr. MacKellar recognized that a popular crop would be needed if he hoped to enter that rare, royal circle of family farms that don't just survive but do well.
"Our main markets are the major city centres – Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary. We're in about 350 all-natural health food stores across Canada with our MacKellar Farms brand."
He got there because, as part of his due diligence, Mr. MacKellar observed that Canadians' eating patterns have been changing. Edamame, once almost unknown here, has become a highly popular food.
"When I learned about edamame I thought it would be a good crop to begin producing here in Ontario, since all edamame consumed in North America has been imported. I've come to learn that there are many people who really love edamame, but no one really likes the idea of where it all comes from [overseas]. So that's our niche," he says.
Mr. MacKellar devotes just less than 10 per cent of his 3,500-acre (1,416-hectare) farm to his magic beans, growing traditional commodity crops such as corn, wheat and grain soy on the rest.
Starting a new crop is still a business risk, but doing this on an existing farm makes the financing and development costs a lot easier, he says.
"Since our edamame business is essentially a startup within a generational farm, we've been able to capitalize on some of our existing infrastructure, equipment and land. So until this point we've financed the business through existing cash flow and operating lines."
At the same time, "Farm Credit Canada is the main agricultural lender in our community," he adds.
"With a product that is essentially a new crop, business plans in the first year were useless. Our approach was working from the ground up." He means this literally.
"At the beginning we had to experiment a lot at the field production level to determine if we could actually grow the crop and also meet and exceed quality standards. Once we were happy we moved onto planning through the rest of the supply chain. There has been a lot of hard-earned knowledge, but that's the valuable kind," he says.
All of Mr. MacKellar's edamame is free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). "Our business model is to work throughout the entire supply chain, from genetic selection all the way to retail partners; this has created a perfect educational experience, enabling us to stay in close contact with our customers, and it allows for flexibility, which is critical at this stage," he says.
"This model may change in the future as we develop stronger relationships with industry partners," he adds.
Cash flow is never easy to manage for small or microbusinesses, and it can be especially challenging for farms, which are among the most season-sensitive businesses in Canada.
But the aspiring Prince Farming says managing cash flow is actually fairly easy.
"Never spend more in a given year than the value of the crop growing in the field. Since we're an established farm business, operating lines of credit are easier to obtain than, say, for a business from complete scratch."
Nevertheless, he adds, "Our edamame business has to stand on its own two feet. Generally we try to generate a significant portion of cash as soon as harvest is over to help smooth things out. Along with this, large capital payments are scheduled at appropriate cash generating times throughout the year."
Despite his long family roots in agriculture, Mr. MacKellar admits he is still learning.
"This business is always morphing; I think if your business isn't changing then it will in fact not work out," he says.