How a Midwestern Farming Family Changed American Cuisine Using the Power of Peas | Economy


In their tale, siblings Nicole Atchison and Tyler Lorenzen did not have a typical childhood.

“Our family was weird. We did some weird things, ”Atchison said. “What we were doing was like the opposite of cool in the farming community.”

In many ways, their upbringing was very Midwestern. They worked in the cultivated fields, played school sports, and spent a lot of time together at home in small town Iowa. But their father, Jerry Lorenzen, had a radical idea: Farmers should primarily cultivate for humans rather than animals.

Today, more than 35 years after Jerry started an experimental backyard garden, Nicole and Tyler are at the center of a revolution in the American diet – the rise of plant-based protein – because of ‘a bet that the family took on the humble, even unappreciated. , peas.

The siblings run Puris, a Minneapolis-based company that has grown rapidly over the past few years as a key ingredient supplier to Beyond Meat, a leading supplier of alternatives to meat. Puris has attracted major investment partners, including Cargill Inc.

And now he’s putting the finishing touches on a $ 150 million facility in Dawson, Minnesota that will boost its pea protein production by a year and a half.

This is the company’s largest investment to date. When production begins in September, Puris will be North America’s largest producer of pea protein, a product it first marketed just seven years ago.

But for decades before that, the Lorenzens struggled, against all odds, to change an entire food system. And when the market finally caught up, they were ready.

In the 1980s, Jerry was selling Purina feed to farmers when he noticed something he considered to be huge inefficiency.

“A lot of the harvest is going to feed the animals so that people will eat the animals,” Atchison recalled. “He knew that someday people will need to eat the plants, so they taste better.”

Jerry started growing soybeans in the basement of the family home to try and make them tastier, while still keeping up with his daily job.

To support his breeding research, he started developing tailor-made corn and soybean seeds for nearby farmers. He and his children made these specialty seeds in a former school gymnasium.

Atchison was 7 and Lorenzen 5 when their father quit his job at Purina and hit the seeds. The kids spent summer vacation and every weekend working on rented test plots near their homes in Fremont, Iowa. They ran between the rows, bringing soybean blossoms to their father, who manually mated the varieties.

“For a long time, the business was just my dad, mom and the two of us like very small children,” Atchison said.

By the time the siblings were teenagers, the company – then called World Food Processing – had established close ties with food processors in Japan, a country where soy-derived foods are devoured. The family opened a soybean cleaning and shelling plant in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1999.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, they marketed a mixed hot dog – part tofu and part farm pork – that was sold in grocery stores under the Bratos brand. “These were mixed products long before Applegate started doing it,” Atchison said.

If they weren’t on the field, the siblings were with their dads at culinary shows or festivals, like RAGBRAI – the annual summer bike ride through Iowa – handing out mixed tofu dogs.

“Sometimes I block this part [of memory]”Tyler Lorenzen said.” It all sounded crazy. “

Their forward-looking father saw another future need: If they wanted to ask farmers to avoid chemicals, they needed a solution for weeds and disease. So in 1999 he started a new yellow pea breeding program.

The idea was that farmers could plant peas at different times of the year to act as a natural shield against weeds, Tyler Lorenzen said. “And maybe one day we can pay them to grow these peas,” he added.

When the siblings went to Iowa State University, their father rented out a few acres nearby so the kids could continue experimenting with new breeds of crops. Atchison played volleyball and Lorenzen played football for the state of Iowa, and the two hired teammates to work with them.

One day in 2004, Lorenzen was walking through the test fields in Ames when he saw a clump of pathetic-looking pea plants. “They were all housed and their leaves in the mud. They didn’t look good, ”he said. “And I remember calling my dad and [saying], ‘Daddy, what are you doing?’ “

But, their father insisted that the peas were crucial to their future.

Tyler Lorenzen spent a few years in the National Football League while Atchison built his career as a biomedical engineer in the Twin Cities.

After being cut off from the New Orleans Saints in 2011, Lorenzen began working at the company’s recently purchased soy protein plant in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin. could be sold directly to food companies.

But they faced competition from large soy food companies. Additionally, consumer sentiment was changing about soy protein, with some worrying about its effects on hormones or possible links to cancer.

“Is there something wrong with soy protein? Probably not. But there is a dark cloud over it based on Google results. We had to pivot, ”Lorenzen said. He called his father and asked him, “What happened to those peas?

The peas meet the nutritional and environmental characteristics they wanted: organic, GMO-free, nitrogen-fixing and non-allergenic.

But very few food companies were buying pea protein at the time. Roquette, based in France, was the only company with significant production of pea protein.

Skeptical, Jerry Lorenzen told his son, “If you can give it a good taste, I’ll support you. “

Tyler Lorenzen and Kushal Chandak, now Puris vice president of research and development, tinkered with the yellow pea. In 2014, they had a commercial product.

Two years later, Tyler Lorenzen persuaded Atchison to quit his career in biomedical engineering and they began to seek more capital.

Two private investors – Charles Chang, founder of Vega, and local investor Chad Hancock – were early supporters of the company, but wanted the siblings to rename it. In 2017, World Food Processing became Puris. Atchison is CEO of Puris Holdings, the umbrella company, and Tyler Lorenzen is CEO of Puris Protein, which focuses on its main pea operation.

Over the next two years, Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc. invested at least $ 100 million in Puris to keep ahead of exploding demand for pea protein in the United States. Around the same time, Beyond Meat went public, attracting the attention of Wall Street and deep-pocketed investors.

During this time, Roquette erected a new large pea protein factory in Canada and other smaller competitors emerged.

Henk Hoogenkamp, ​​consultant on plant protein for food companies, said the rapid growth of pea protein would not have happened if Tyler Lorenzen had not met Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown, who has then decided to use peas instead of soybeans as a base. an ingredient in the company’s now famous line of alternative meats.

The Beyond Meat IPO sparked a race among restaurant chains, from Dunkin ‘to Denny’s to Del Taco, to introduce plant-based products, helping fuel a temporary shortage of pea protein.

Still, the pea protein market is small compared to soybeans, the main source of plant-based alternative proteins. Hoogenkamp estimates that the pea protein market will reach 300,000 metric tonnes of production this year, or about a quarter of the soy concentrate market.

In China, several dormant soybean facilities have been converted to pea processing plants. Chinese companies buy peas grown in North America, import them for processing in China, and then send much of the finished protein powder back to the United States.

Pea protein from China sells for around $ 4 a kilogram, about half the price of U.S. companies, Hoogenkamp said.

With the high cost of transportation and the low prices they charge, Atchison called this re-imported pea protein “questionable.”

The main challenge Puris currently faces, she said, is getting more American farmers to plant yellow peas. The company is trying to persuade farmers to plant peas between the corn and soybean rotations.

But with corn and soybean prices near record highs, farmers have relatively little incentive to focus on anything other than the two core giants.

“If we were to go after this to play the commodities game, we would be doomed,” Atchison said. “Our thesis has always been to obtain [peas] on those acres at different times of the year, so you’re not asking the farmers to make a decision. It’s a yes / and a decision.

The siblings believe their long-standing seed genetics program gives them a competitive edge as the pea protein industry grows. Puris has many breeds that maximize yield, resist disease, and grow in a variety of climates.

“For so long my dad had to justify his decisions to his peers in the breeding industry,” Atchison said. “Just a year or two ago, I heard him justify his decisions as a group and reminded him, ‘You don’t have to do this anymore. People now understand.

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