Powerful Pulses

Oct 17, 2016

The Protein Highway is a value chain for health food and feed protein from plants.

The region’s next big ag project may have nothing to do with wheat or cattle. 

It all about pulses:  dried beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas.  Montana’s farmers have been seeding pulses like crazy in recent years.  Now, a group wants to build a manufacturing plant in Great Falls to further capitalize on the wonder crop.   

“We are ripe for a pea fractionation facility,” said Jolene Schalper, director of business development at the Great Falls Development Authority.

Let’s just get this word out of the way: fractionation – it’s the process of isolating the protein, starch, and fiber of dried peas to use in commercial food products like hummus, snacks and baked goods.

Schalper and others think opening a fractionation facility in north-central Montana makes a lot of sense.

“Our region has the advantage of an abundance of high quality pea commodities that they can contract direct with the farmers, which is very different than contracting with a commodity broker,” she said.  “Our region has low cost electrical and natural gas inputs, shovel ready fully equipped industrial parks, a robust transportation system and plentiful labor resources.”

It’s all part of a larger vision to brand the region The Protein Highway.  Like Napa, Bordeaux and Champagne – regions known for their top quality agricultural products – the Canadian Prairies and Upper Midwest/Great Plains region wants an esteemed agricultural identity of its own.

Charles Boyer, dean of Montana State University’s College of Agriculture, says regional branding is all about marketing. 

“It brings together the resources of various commodity organizations that might be regional or state based to leverage their resources in how we advertise or market this,” Boyer said.

The cachet of a regional identity adds value to products grown and manufactured there – an asset when seeking financing for a fractionation plant that could cost up to $80 million.     

Pulse crop acres have increased from 350,000 in 2009 to over a million acres this year.  Montana farmers now produce the most pulses in the country. 

“The growth has been quite phenomenal,” Boyer said.

Consumers like that pulses are vegan, high protein, high fiber, gluten free, non-allergen, non-GMO, and have a low glycemic index.

Producers like that they replace the fallow – or uncultivated – season in wheat or barley production.  They fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, which, in turn, improves quality and yield in next year’s wheat and barley, all while using little fertilizer and moisture. 

It also gives them a high-value cash crop at a time when the price of wheat and barley – traditionally the life blood of the region’s agricultural economy –  are rock bottom.

Boyer says that’s key for producers.

“Having a business plan that buffers changing commodity prices, whether it’s lower wheat prices or barley prices, allows them to have additional crops that can supplement and often times contrast their value so they are economically viable as well,” Boyer said. 

There is no timeline to build a fractionation plant yet. The idea is being shopped to companies across Canada and the U.S.