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A European food-manufacturing giant is investing more than $400 million to build a pea processing facility at Portage la Prairie -- a plant touted as the largest of its kind in the world.

French-based Roquette, which employs 8,000 people in more than 100 countries, is scheduled to begin construction of the plant before the end of the year. It's expected to employ more than 300 people during the project's two-year design and construction phase and create 150 permanent jobs thereafter.

The facility will cater to the makers of vegetarian foods and high-protein sport nutrition products.

"It is the largest global investment in pea protein (processing) to date," said Edouard Roquette, chairman of the French-based company at a ceremony at the Manitoba Legislative Building on Wednesday.

Premier Brian Pallister said the plant will provide an important market for Canadian farmers and be a boon to the provincial economy.

"This is one of the largest private-sector investments in the history of Manitoba," Pallister told a news conference that attracted scores of business and government officials.

Canada produces 30 per cent of world's peas

Canada is the world's largest producer of field peas, with an approximately 30 per cent global market share. In 2016, Canadian growers planted more than 4.2 million acres of the crop, according to Statistics Canada.

Roquette said the Portage area was the "perfect location" for its new facility. Company officials said they were attracted to Manitoba by the availability of the crop, a plentiful supply of electricity, a highly skilled labour force and "a great business environment."

France-based Roquette will build a pea-processing plant in Portage la Prairie.</p>

France-based Roquette will build a pea-processing plant in Portage la Prairie.

"We evaluated about 40 different sites across Canada and in the U.S. also, and at the end of the day we decided that Manitoba was the right place for us to be," said Roquette CEO Jean-Marc Gilson.

He said the company began looking in earnest for a North American pea-processing location 18 months ago. It started to narrow down its choices during the summer, making repeated visits to the most desirable spots. The final decision to locate in Manitoba came in the last two to three months, he added.

The Pallister government initially insisted that it provided no financial incentives to Roquette to locate in Manitoba.

In answer to media questions, Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler said there were "no grants or forms of money at all towards Roquette." 

He said the province aided the company in securing a spot for the facility and made investments in wastewater facilities in both the RM of Portage la Prairie, where the plant will be located, and the city of Portage. 

"Those types of investments (in sewer upgrades) we do share normally anyway," Eichler said.

$6.8 million provided to the company

Later, a provincial spokeswoman admitted that there would be $6.8 million provided to the company in the form of  provincial and municipal tax increment financing, and another $2.5 million would come from the federal-provincial Growing Forward program. She called the government's earlier insistence that no subsidies were provided an "oversight."

Kameron Blight, reeve of the RM of Portage la Prairie, said Roquette first brought up the possibility of building a processing plant in the community in 2012. But last spring, negotiations began in earnest. 

The Portage la Prairie area is already home to a major oats processor and large potato processing plants operated by McCain and J.R. Simplot. 

The city and rural municipality have built up considerable sewer and water capacity to meet the needs of current and future food processors. The two municipalities also work in tandem to secure new investments, sharing in the tax revenues they generate.

"We don’t compete for industry. We work in co-operation," Portage Mayor Irvine Ferris said.

The municipal leaders say Roquette's $400 million outlay is likely just the beginning of its investment in their community. They note that while the plant's initial phase will take up just over 70 acres of land, the French company acquired 240 acres. The plant is to be located south of the TransCanada Highway and just west of the city of Portage.

Jason Voth, who grows field peas and other crops on his 3,000-acre farm near Altona, said he's excited at the prospect of a major processor moving into Manitoba.

He said greater demand for field peas would likely boost farm prices. Meanwhile, delivery costs for Manitoba farmers should be quite reasonable.

"It’s great news for growers across the province," said Voth, who chairs the Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers Association.

-- with a file from Dan Lett

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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