At one point last summer Roquette’s pea protein plant was the largest construction site in the province with about 1,600 tradespeople on the job.
That was in the middle of the pandemic.
But with the 200,000-square-foot plant now in the process of being commissioned — it will have its grand (virtual) opening in November — company officials and staff are very upbeat.
That in itself is a testimony to the determination and expertise — and goodwill — of the French company that is a recognized global leader in the fields having been in the plant protein business for 20 years, longer than anyone else.
Building a $600-million factory to manufacture food products means hygiene (and safety) are very high priorities. Continuing to work at the 67-acre site through the pandemic caused every manner of delay and complications, from equipment being stuck on shipping docks in China, Ontario and Quebec, to construction workers’ lunch trailers needing to be reconfigured for social distancing. The company bought one million masks for construction workers and their families and set up its own asymptomatic testing site for all the workers coming and going from out of the province.
Through it all, it slowed the process down, losing about 20 per cent of productivity.
"We are so thankful for all our contractors - some of whom were away from their families during COVID ‐ the farmers who has stepped up in a big way, our employees and all the support we've had from all levels of government."‐ Dominique Baumann, CEO for Roquette in Canada.
At the same time, this summer’s drought downsized pea yields in the Prairies. And, prices have doubled.
But Dominique Baumann, CEO for Roquette in Canada, and now head of Roquette’s global plant-based protein operations, said everything about the decision to invest more than half a billion dollars in the factory just south of Simplot’s large potato-processing plant on the outskirts of Portage la Prairie, was a good one.
"We are so thankful for all our contractors — some of whom were away from their families during COVID — the farmers who have stepped up in a big way, our employees and all the support we’ve had from all levels of government," he said.
Baumann said Roquette teams around the world are "super excited about what we are doing here."
With about 30 senior technical advisers from Roquette’s global network assisting in the final stages of completion — the family-owned French ingredient manufacturer operates 25 production facilities around the world — it has the look and feel of an ultra-modern factory.
The plant features 60 kilometres of piping, its own Level 2 microbiology lab and receiving bays for 10-to-12 truckloads of peas per day.
Its water-based process of extracting the protein — no chemicals are used — is top-secret proprietary intelligence.
Company officials boast it’s one of the most energy-efficient plants anywhere, with markets already established or in the final stages for all extraneous elements of the pea left over after the protein has been isolated.
During a tour this week, more than a dozen technicians were hovering around computer screens displaying impossibly complicated engineering graphics doing the final work to automate the plant.
When it is at full capacity next year the company will have a workforce of about 125 people including marketing and administration. During overnight production it will need only six or seven people on site at the plant.
But the economic spinoffs of the plant are already being felt in Portage and beyond. The bustling, multi-year worksite — it is one of the largest greenfield developments in the province in the past decade — brought lots of extra spending into the community. Farmers and truck drivers and all sorts of vendors will continue to bump up the provincial GDP.
Roquette will contract for about 125,000 metric tonnes of peas per year. That’s about half of the total pea production in Manitoba in 2020. Saskatchewan grows about 10 times as much.
Baumann said they are very happy that Manitoba farmers have been so open to the prospect of growing peas for Roquette.
The company has three agronomists that work directly with farmers and are in the process of lining up contracts for full production in 2022.
"Seventy per cent of the peas are coming from Manitoba, that was not planned," Baumann said. "Manitoba farmers have responded super well."
Since the project was announced in 2017 the market for plant-based protein has continued to grow at close to 10 per cent per year.
The only client Roquette has disclosed is Beyond Meat, the highly successful California company that sometimes seems to have single-handedly popularized the veggie burger. Roquette has been a supplier to Beyond Meat for several years from its smaller pea protein production in France
In addition to building the largest pea protein plant in the world, Roquette is also the only company to have production capacity on two continents.
In addition to meat analogues such as veggie burgers, Roquette already has customers lined up with consumer packaged goods companies making nutritional shakes, milk alternatives, ice cream, non-dairy coffee creamer, fish analogues, pet food, peanut butter and other meat analogues like nuggets.
"These are big trends that are here to stay," Baumann said.
Since starting construction in Portage, Roquette acquired another production facility in The Netherlands and built a $13-million plant protein research and development centre in France.
"There are more and more people on the planet, less arable land to grow and plant-based protein is so much more environmentally friendly," said Baumann. "We are not saying eat only plant-based protein. It is a balance."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.