A new pulse-processing plant near Bowden will tap into an underserved and growing market for plant-based proteins once it comes online next year.
“It’s really a no-brainer — we already have markets (for the protein) across the U.S. and Canada waiting for us to get into production,” said Chris Chivilo, president of W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions.
“It’s one of those few cases of, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Because there’s so much pent-up demand, we get calls weekly wondering when we’re going to be up and running.”
Set to open next February at W.A. Grain and Pulse’s Bowden facility, the new plant will include a lentil- and pea-splitting line and flour mill, dry and wet fractionation lines, with a pet food ingredients’ facility planned at the same site. When it opens, the plant will source roughly 60,000 tonnes of lentils and peas a year, and once the pet food ingredients facility is online, that capacity could hit 100,000 tonnes. The total project cost is $15 million, with $5 million of that to be spent over the next year.
Investment in value-added pulse processing has been relatively limited in recent years, despite this project and a massive $400-million pea-processing plant slated to be built near Portage la Prairie, Man. Despite growing demand for pulse fractions, the capital expenditure and risk has stalled growth on the processing side, said Chivilo.
“It’s been harder to grow a business in the last couple of years because of poor margins and a poor trading atmosphere around the world,” said Chivilo, who is also planning a similar facility in Prince Edward Island.
“We’ve been looking at it for two years and we’ve come up with some processes that are a little bit different than what other companies are using, which reduces the capital expenditures somewhat, and that gave us the confidence to go ahead.”
The fractionation lines — a relatively new technology that separates seeds into protein, fibre, and starch to be used in food products — will allow the company to “diversify into more value-added products,” he said.
“Currently, we basically butt heads trading bulk exports and bagged exports. With new entries into the market and the inability of larger companies to make suitable margins, it’s causing everybody some grief and cutting into margins.
“This helps diversify into higher-margin products that tend to stay in the domestic market where prices are better.”
Plant proteins are a growth market right now as food companies look at ingredients that will meet changing consumer demands. And pulses fit the bill — they’re GMO free, gluten free, dairy free, and high in protein.
“They tick off all the health boxes for every consumer,” said Chivilo. “With plant proteins right now, we could have sold out our capacity for the first year 10 times over already. There is that much demand into the pet food ingredients market and into some lower-quality human use markets.
“We get to fill all needs of the market — not just the pet food market or the human market.”
Fibre fractions are limited and easy to find a market for, but starch fractions “are a little more work” to sell, he added.
“We’re looking at more of a purified starch with specific attributes that can meet a little more of the speciality demand so we can capitalize on higher prices.”
Chivilo expects that most of the value-added products produced at the facility will go into domestic food processing, where demand is growing and supply is still limited.
“The food-processing industry in Alberta is a very quiet industry and doesn’t get a lot of accolades, but there is a very active food-processing industry that uses up a lot of starch in Alberta,” he said.
“We hope to work with those customers to make sure we can hit their quality specs and access those markets so they don’t have to import from the U.S. and around the world.”
This new market will “add a few bucks to the farmers’ bottom line” by offering a premium for high-quality pulses, he added.
“We’ll be taking 100,000 tonnes once we’re at full capacity out of the export market, which isn’t a huge number when we’re exporting five million to seven million tonnes of pulses, but every little bit in a local production area has more of an impact.
“Once we run out of local product, we have to go further, so it will help underpin prices.”
W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions will also likely implement a contract system for higher-protein varieties of peas and lentils, which will offer a premium to the producers growing them.
“The higher the quality, the higher the price… and the more choices we have in what we do with that product,” said Chivilo.
“We may get the best value out of splitting it, or we may get the best value out of selling it whole, or we could take it down the line and do our normal fractioning.
“If we can get a higher value for a farmer’s product by selling it to a higher-quality customer, they will also gain in that.”
But there are “far more than enough” pulses in Alberta to satisfy the plant’s demand once it’s up and running, so producers thinking about growing for this new market may need to think again — particularly if they haven’t grown pulses before.
“Just because we’re going to be splitting and de-hulling lentils here doesn’t mean farmers around here should grow lentils,” said Chivilo.
“If a farmer really hasn’t looked at pulses in the past, I don’t really want them looking at them now.”