Plant-protein processing is slowly but surely making its way to Alberta with the recent launch of Lovingly Made Ingredients in Calgary.
The ingredient manufacturing arm of the British company Meatless Farm began production in its 33,000-square-foot facility in March. And so far, Alberta is proving to be the right location for the rapidly growing startup.
“We were looking for the best place to position ourselves that would have the biggest positive impact on our end consumers at the Meatless Farm, and we ultimately settled on Calgary,” said Chris Shields, vice-president of manufacturing for Lovingly Made Ingredients.
“There’s three million metric tons of yellow peas within not too big a distance of us, so between supply, logistics, market access, and proximity to research, we’re just really well positioned for a multitude of reasons.”
The Lovingly Made Ingredients division was created in 2020 as a way to produce ingredients of sufficient quality and quantity for the Meatless Farm, a European leader in the faux meat (a.k.a. meat analogue) sector. It produces patties, “ground,” and sausages primarily from pea proteins.
“We’ve gone from a startup company two years ago with 200 or 300 per cent growth each year,” said Shields. “For a lot of suppliers, they just couldn’t keep pace as we started to expand — and there’s no sign of that slowing down.
“So with the struggle trying to secure our own material, we decided to take the plunge and do it ourselves. We saw some gaps that we could fill that would improve our product, and it’s certainly sped up our innovation massively in doing so.”
Using yellow pea protein processed in Saskatchewan, Lovingly Made creates a textured — “almost spongy” — product that can be used in everything from gluten-free baking to meat analogue products.
“Our parent company, the Meatless Farm, uses it for its burgers and ground, but it also has bakery, cereal, and snack applications,” said Shields. “There’s a really wide variety of things we can do with these pulse crops.”
But they’re also hoping to fill a gap in the general market, he added.
“We’ve had a huge amount of interest just in Canada alone for this product, and we’ve spread to customers in the U.S., Japan, the U.K., and Europe. Everybody’s crying out for this material — it’s just the right time.”
Alberta checks all the boxes
And Alberta happened to be the right place.
In 2019, as company officials were exploring how to vertically integrate, they were also looking for the right location for their expansion.
“I think by complete chance, the Canadian High Commission managed to put a presentation on our desk and pointed out all the good reasons why Canada was the right place to go,” said Shields.
So they made the trip across the pond to the Pulse and Special Crops Convention in Montreal and then continued west to Saskatchewan to explore their options. And then carried on even farther west to Alberta, where they went “up and down the province looking for where would be a great location.”
And with its proximity both to international markets and domestic production, Calgary fit the bill as an “untapped resource” for value-added processing, said Shields.
“I think it’s well known that Alberta is quite a large exporter of commodity crops,” he said. “We export yellow peas to China, where they’re processed and converted into these products, and then it comes back here where it’s made into the next-stage products like we have at the Meatless Farm.
“But if we could do that within the province, we wouldn’t have to export — we could do all that processing within the province, and that would start to drive prices and demand up.”
That’s good news both for the farms and farmers they’re hoping to work with, he added.
Right now, Lovingly Made is looking at contracting Alberta farmers for their yellow pea production, which will then be processed in Saskatchewan until new fractionation facilities are up and running in Alberta (hopefully within the next two years).
“Having that connection right back to the farm is absolutely essential, especially for our consumers nowadays. Everybody wants to know where their food is coming from,” said Shields. “There can sometimes be quite the disconnect between the farmer and the consumer, which can lead to some friction throughout that supply chain.
“So I think engaging with farmers and making positive change from the ground up is the right way to do things.”
Lovingly Made is focused on sustainably sourced crops, which is less about how production is managed and more about how efficiently the supply chain can run. That means, ideally, fewer inputs, better water use efficiency, and other ways to produce more with less cost to the producer, the processors, and the environment.
“We’ll have to work with the farmers and the research that’s available to understand their challenges and how we then make changes toward improving marginal gains on yields and minimizing inputs of herbicides and pesticides without making it a challenge that creates more work,” said Shields.
“We essentially want to do things in harmony with their farm plans so that we can maximize their yields. A good yield for the farmer is a good yield for us because it means less land used.”
But the intent isn’t to “push farmers into a direction that just doesn’t work for them,” he added.
“We never want to be a business that pushes and pulls industry in the wrong direction and causes more harm on the farm than good,” he said. “We have to respect that change takes time and these things need to be worked through together. Farmers have to be fully engaged for that to happen.”
Lovingly Made hopes to connect directly with producers in the near future, as well as explore other types of protein, such as hemp and oats, in its formulations, he added.
But for this year at least, the company is poised to produce roughly 1,000 tonnes of product from its yellow pea protein. And based on the growth in demand, officials expect to produce in excess of 6,000 tonnes a year within the next two years.
“We’re growing fast. We only have one production line, so those volumes are just a first step,” said Shields. “There’s a long way to go, and there’s a lot more we’re looking to do.”