Manitoba could be ‘Silicon Valley of plant protein,’ company says at opening of massive pea-processing plant

It was a grand opening for a processing plant in rural Manitoba — but there was still space for the oddity of an astronaut strumming his guitar to a classic David Bowie tune and a chef extolling the virtues of legumes.

The French food products company Roquette went big Wednesday to play up its massive $600-million pea-processing plant, just outside Portage la Prairie.

The company enlisted celebrated Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and chef and TV personality Michael Smith to mark the occasion, speaking at the virtual open house for a 200,000-square-foot facility Roquette bills as the largest of its kind in the world.

The company sees Manitoba as an international leader in the emerging protein market.

“Manitoba can be the Silicon Valley of plant protein,” Dominique Baumann, managing director for Roquette in Canada, said in a video played at the open house. 

The facility, which Roquette hails as “the plant of the future,” is equipped to produce pea protein for food and sports nutrition products, along with food-grade starches and components like pea cream for animal feed.

Construction began in 2018 on the plant, which started processing after the 2020 harvest season. 

Roquette conducts its own microbiology and sensory testing at the plant in Portage la Prairie. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Roquette expects demand for pea-based products to only increase, with consumers hungry for more protein-based foods such as meat alternatives.

Jeremy Burks, senior vice-president of Roquette, said the plant in Portage la Prairie, about 85 kilometres west of Winnipeg, is up for the challenge.

When Roquette’s customers launch a product, “they want to be confident that if their product takes off with the consumer they’ve got someone behind them that can help meet that surge in demand,” he said.

The facility marks the company’s largest-ever spend in North America. The plant has the capacity to process 125,000 tons of yellow peas annually. 

Roquette has hired nearly 120 employees to work at the plant. 

Burks expects positioning the facility in the middle of Canada, close to many protein suppliers in North America, will serve producers well. 

“We actually think this opening of this factory is going to do a lot of good because it’s going to shorten supply chains,” he said.

Roquette is banking on Manitoba farmers growing more peas as a result. 

Pea production in the province has tripled between 2015 and 2020. Last year, 246,200 metric tonnes were taken off the land, Statistics Canada said. 

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