Producers want in on plant protein gold rush

Sector says expanding premium-paying customer demand is key to more premium-paying growing opportunities

Plant protein potential might be showering the agriculture and food industries with a wealth of opportunities.

But some of that wealth needs to rain down on farmers or they won’t buy in, farmer representatives said at the Manitoba Protein Summit.

“I don’t ever seem to be in a value chain,” said Minto, Man., farmer David Rourke.

Keystone Agricultural Producers President Bill Campbell put plant protein enthusiasts on notice that farmers needed to be rewarded and protected to give the hoped-for future industry a solid foundation.

“Let’s not forget the primary producer,” said Campbell.

“If you want to engage a strong foundation and a primary producer, we need to ‘show me the money.’ ”

Plant protein is sparking enthusiasm among food processors, grocery store chains, fast food chains and restauranteurs.

It is drawing in big money from plant protein processing and production companies, as well as spurring interest from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

But even though there is much interest from farmers, there is more of a cautious approach from many, as the promised opportunities often don’t seem to translate to much at the farmgate.

Pulse industry pioneer Jack Froese of Winkler, Man., laid out the more than 50-year history of prairie farmers working hard to develop pulse-growing knowledge, methods, organizations, funding and promotion that has made Western Canada a sea of valuable protein products.

But sometimes that work seems little rewarded.

“Everyone has to be a winner in the value chain,” said Froese.

Farmers’ efforts and investments are “what is propelling the (plant protein) industry today.”

Many premium-paying processors and marketers were at the summit.

Adam Dyck of British breadmaker Warburton’s noted the more than $100 million in premiums it has paid Canadian farmers in the past 25 years, and its commitment to value-added agriculture.

“That’s a true partnership,” said Dyck.

Sav Bellissimo of Federated Co-operatives said his company seeks out local foods and both pays a premium price for them and charges consumers a premium. And it is trying to find a way to create more value in prairie-produced foods by focusing on the farmer.

“How do we make that producer the star” of the product,” said Bellissimo.

Building premium-paying customer demand is key to increasing premium-paying growing opportunities, said Connie Tamoto of Cargill.

The company has a pilot project of producing crops with special attributes and is planning to expand that program next year as new buyers step forward.

“They’re willing to pay for that,” said Tamoto.

Froese noted that sometimes premiums help establish some new crop opportunities, but with time and more acres, those crops become just bulk commodities again. Treating crops like interchangeable bulk commodities doesn’t convince farmers to commit much special effort.

Dyck said Warburton’s has long followed the approach that value is important to its products, and value in the crops it buys should be rewarded.

“You’re not growing a commodity. You’re growing an ingredient,” said Dyck.

“We’re paying a premium. You have to treat it like an ingredient instead of a commodity. I think that can apply to all kinds of different commodities and different applications.

“If the grower is willing to treat it like an ingredient, they should be rewarded like an ingredient as well.”

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