Here’s some counterintuitive advice: Think about growing peas in 2018.
That’s a suggestion from Alan Hall, who has kept a close watch on the pulse sector in his role as ‘new initiatives and project hunter’ with the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund.
As such, Hall is well aware of the recent plunge in pea prices, and predictions that pea acreage on the Prairies could plummet by a million or more acres next year.
But the future for the pulse crop is bright and if you haven’t grown them — or have limited experience with them — peas should have a spot in your rotation next year, said Hall.
“I’d put a field or two (of peas) in as opposed to gambling too much — peas look very promising in the long term, as do lentils and fababeans,” he said. “For some, growing peas is a new experience. The Alberta Pulse Growers Commission had over 900 new growers in 2017. The bulk of those were new growers of peas.”
And while anyone with peas in the bin will be concerned about the drop in pea prices that followed last month’s decision by India to impose a 50 per cent tariff on the crop, the long-term trend is farmers’ friend, said Hall.
“There is some trending in global consumer markets that are really pushing demand for plant-based proteins,” he said. “There’s this kind of drive happening in North America, happening in Europe, happening in Asia. You’ve got a lot of world population pushing this.
“The response to that has been the investment world saying, ‘Look at the Canadian Prairies and all these pulse proteins are pretty much desired because of their functionalities and how they fit into the food formulations, beverage formulations, those kinds of things.’”
India has been the biggest market for Canadian dry peas, importing about one million tonnes annually over the last few years. It would take a huge amount of processing to equal that, but the signs are good, say both Hall and Pulse Canada CEO Gordon Bacon.
“Non-traditional applications in food products are the reason why I’m very confident in the pulse industry long term,” said Bacon.
A new plant being built by French pulse giant Roquette in Portage la Prairie, Man., will be the privately owned company’s biggest facility (it has 20 worldwide) and consume 125,000 tonnes annually. A Verdient Foods plant near Saskatoon (partly owned by famous director James Cameron) is being converted to organic and a series of expansions are planned that will bring production up to 160,000 tonnes annually. W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions in Bowden has also announced plans for a two-stage expansion that could increase production by 100,000 tonnes annually.
There are also other facilities under consideration — including one at Moose Jaw involving German investors and another in Lethbridge. As well, there is speculation that Regina’s AGT Food and Ingredients, which has a pulse-processing plant at Minot, N.D. that has been repeatedly expanded, may build a sister facility north of the border.
“If they all get built, we’ll be using a million-plus tonnes, which roughly equates to a million acres,” said Hall. “You’re talking about roughly 20 per cent of the current pulse crop.”
Processing of peas — called fractionation — yields a variety of products. Some methods produce isolates (a plant protein), others yield concentrates with a 40 to 45 per cent protein level, and another process creates pea flour, said Bacon.
But the list of specific products and their uses is long and getting longer, he said.
“What we need to do is just get rid of the idea that you just grind it and it’s ready. We want to look at this continuum of whole peas, split peas, pea flour, pea concentrates, and pea isolates.”
Milling is a dry process, while the production of isolates is a wet process, and that’s where major dollars come in. The cost of a spray dryer in isolate production is about $25 million.
“We have various levels of investment, various levels of the price of ingredients, but we have this continuum of demand that we’re looking to address for all the levels that we’ve talked about,” said Bacon.
The demand is indeed varied. More and more consumers want the health benefits associated with plant protein while food manufacturers are increasingly interested in high-protein and high-fibre ingredients; protein sources free of allergens associated with soy, dairy, and wheat; and GMO-free ingredients.
And this is not just a North American phenomenon, but a global one, said Bacon.
On a recent trade mission to China, Alberta farmer and Pulse Canada director Allison Ammeter and Leanne Fischbuch, executive director of Alberta Pulse Growers, visited facilities that produce isolates and are developing new ways to incorporate pea flour into noodles, he said.
“People are looking to reformulate and higher-protein and higher-fibre levels,” said Bacon.
The Canadian Prairies will be a “hot spot” for pulse processing, predicted Hall.
Not only are farmers here able to produce both high quality and a consistent supply of pulses, but “Canada is a good place to invest in terms of security, political stability, those kinds of things,” he said.
“So it looks like the Canadian Prairies will be a magnet for this type of processing. It’s looking pretty positive — similar to the canola story. Go back over the last couple of decades when a first plant was built and then a second, and now half of the canola is crushed on the Prairies and the other half is exported bulk.
“I think pulses are on the same journey, but it’s ramped up in terms of speed.”
Even the plants already being constructed will make a difference, said Bacon.
“The key to price stability is a more diversified market base,” he said. “You can make an argument that even small improvements in a market base dampen price swings to a significant level.”
If Prairie farmers can make a decent return, there’s no doubt they will grow more pulses because the crop works well in a rotation, breaking the disease and pest cycles in canola and wheat, said Hall.
However, becoming adept at growing pulses comes with a learning curve too, he added, pointing to disease issues in particular. While root rot gets much of the attention, pulses can be attacked by a host of soil-borne fungi that are often described as ‘a complex of root pathogens.’
“Pulses are a funny animal,” noted Hall. “If you grow too much, you have diseases or pest pressures.”
But new pulse varieties with better yield and harvestability continue to come out and when coupled with rising demand, any drop in acreage will be short lived, he said.
“Overall, pulse crops are in that five- to six-million-acre range, and that could well go to 10 (million),” he said.