Expanding the Plant-Based Food Market w/ Nicole Atchison

Interview with Nicole Atchison, CEO of PURIS Holdings

Show Notes

This week, we welcome Nicole Atchison, CEO of PURIS Holdings, a plant-based food company. Nicole discusses the rapid adoption of plant-based protein, including peas, and how her company has met growing consumer demand for plant-based and organic foods that taste great.

Learn more about Avé Organics: www.aveorganics.com

Learn more about PURIS Holdings: www.puris.com

Connect with our guest on LinkedIn

#agriculture #farming #organicagriculture #organicfarming #plantbased #plantbasedfood

Podcast Transcription

INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower — an interview podcast where we hear from the top experts in the commercial organic industry, with a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field. You will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you ad-free by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. To learn more about Avé Organics, visit our program notes. In the meantime, enjoy the show. 

TOM: Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in today. Welcome to another episode of Organics Unpacked, a podcast where we discuss organic farming from a practical view. I’m your host, Tom Buman. Today, I’m joined by Nicole Atchison. Nicole is the CEO of PURIS Holdings. Nicole, welcome to Organics Unpacked.

NICOLE: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.

History of PURIS Foods

TOM: It is a pleasure to have you, Nicole. I know that you are doing a lot of exciting things in the organic world, and it’s great to have you join us today. So, Nicole, before we get started with your business and what PURIS Holdings is and PURIS Foods, can you give us a background of how you got to where you are today?

NICOLE: Yeah, absolutely. So PURIS is literally a lifelong pursuit for me, and so much that my parents actually founded the business when I was two years old. So I grew up in the business. Our business — I’ll talk a little bit more in detail later — but we’re a vertically-integrated, plant-based food company, and how that started was that we were a plant breeding company. So, for the first 19 years of my life, I spent a lot of time in the field breeding soybeans using conventional breeding methods, so cross-pollination. When I was five, I was the designated flower picker, meaning that my dad would put a flag next to the rows that we were crossing with, and I would go pick the flowers that were ready for crossing. And as I got older, I became the breeder, and then, by the time I was a preteen, I had to manage the summer crew that did crossing. And that was really my life, so we worked a lot as kids. It was a small family business. My brother Tyler and I always say that we were employees at three and four. So my dad, my mom and then us. And from a very young age, we were active in the business. So I, really, from age two to 19, was involved and then went to college. I’m an engineer, so I wanted to be involved in something that helped people. That was what I decided when I was 14 and pursued a degree in chemical engineering and biomedical engineering. After graduate school, I spent time in the medical device industry. And in that industry, I learned a lot of things that are applicable today but was working on devices that really help people live longer, fuller lives when they have diseases that impact their limbs.

And through that process, I had a lot of experience with growing new technologies and innovation and bringing it to market. So, really, the commercialization of new technologies. And after a successful time there and an acquisition, I had the opportunity to either stay in that business, which had been acquired by a multinational, or come back to the family business and really take what I had learned externally and start applying it to our business. Which had, again, started from just my parents and, at this time, in the mid-2010s, was starting to scale. And I made that leap, which was scary at the time, but I kind of justify it by thinking back to my 14-year-old self saying I wanted to do something that helps people. And I had spent a long time doing that by treating people that had a disease. And what I love about what we do today is, instead of treating disease, we’re really looking at the root cause and trying to bring food to bear that people can eat, and it doesn’t negatively impact them. So it’s helping people by addressing the root cause, and so it’s really back to the roots a little bit for me. But it’s been really exciting in what we’re doing. I’m able to bring the engineering and work that I did in school through what we do in our processing plants. But then, also, just commercializing new technology? That’s really core to what we do today, whether it’s new varieties, new products, new processes. Bringing something new to market really just runs very, very thick in our blood.

Behind the PURIS Name

TOM: That’s a really cool background, Nicole. Thanks for sharing that. That is impressive. So, as we get into your company, PURIS Holdings and PURIS Foods, does the term PURIS come from anywhere? Is that just kind of a name you decided on? Or does it kind of have a root meaning?

NICOLE: Great question. Not very many people ask us that. But our company — my parents founded the business — and the name, for a long period of our time, was World Food Processing. And, really, the genesis of our business from the early, early days — from the 1980s — was we wanted to make plant-based food taste great. And our belief is that it starts with the seed, and so we’ve, from the very beginning, been designing and creating seeds with nutrition and flavor in mind, as well as agronomic potential. And that’s been very core to my dad’s philosophy and, really, where it all started. Then, as we progressed through the years — in the mid-90s, you had the advent of GMOs and the proliferation of those in the system — we have always been non-GMO seeds. And that really started the journey of PURIS, and it was Pure Is.’ And that’s like, Pure’ is 100% non-GMO. Pure’ is sustainably grown. Pure’ is all these things, and so, for a long time, our ingredients were trademarked PURIS pea protein,’ PURIS soy flour,’ whatever the ingredient would be. So we were World Food Processing, with our ingredients trademarked as PURIS, representing purity and pure sourcing. So, in 2016 – 2017, we rebranded the business and really wanted to bring that kind of philosophy to the company name. So PURIS Holdings, PURIS Proteins — all of it together is PURIS, and PURIS is still that same kind of fundamental route where we want plant-based food to taste great. And we want pure, traceable, no-compromise products that really represent PURIS. And altogether, it’s from seeds all the way to product, and that creates the PURIS system.

Growing Organic & Plant-Based Foods

TOM: That’s pretty cool that you have carried that branding all the way through all those generations. That’s pretty neat. So let’s talk about what PURIS is. So, obviously, we talk about organics here. Are you all organic? Are you some more traditional than organic? What is the flavor of the company from start to end?

NICOLE: Yeah, so we are a plant-based food company, and we accomplish that by being vertically integrated through the development of seeds. So we develop non-GMO seeds in corn, pea and soy. So everything we do is non-GMO. We do not do any genetic modification or gene editing in our program. We sell those seeds to growers, and our growers are typically going to have a mixed bag. We have some growers who are regenerative, organic no-till. We have some growers whose part of their growing operation could be conventional, but they’re potentially transitioning or looking to diversify and add different crops onto their farm. So we do a lot of non-GMO, both in soy and pea, and we do a big chunk of organic. We would love to be 100% organic in our facilities, but I think there are market dynamics because, ultimately, we’re a processor. And our customers, which would be food makers, are driving some of the product mix decisions. Our kind of foundation has always been on organic, and we strive to maximize the amount of organic acres that we’re touching with U.S. farmers. And we do a big number, a large number, of organic acres today, but not all. So we do a lot of non-GMO, as well.

Scaling the PURIS Supply Chain 

TOM: So, Nicole, when you grow your grains, do you have your own farms to do that? Or do you contract out to growers to do that?

NICOLE: Good question. We contract-farm. So, when we’re working with a producer, we will do what we call full-production contracts.’ So we will contract with them for their number of acres and sell them the seed. But, at the same time, we’ll also be doing a contract to buy back the full production. So anything that they grow, we’ll buy back, and we do a buyer’s call. And it all really works within our supply chain, so those grains come into our facilities that we own and operate in the Midwest. Those facilities are non-GMO and organic facilities with traceability and IP potentials within them, and we custom-clean and condition those crops to meet food-grade specs. Our crops, whether it’s soy, could be grown specifically for markets in tofu, natto, soy milk, soy nuts, different food applications for soybeans. Then, in our yellow pea varieties, we do pea splits and, then, ultimately process those peas into pea protein: fiber and starch. And those are ingredients that are used in a number of plant-based foods on the market today, from the Beyond Meats of the world to protein shakes to milks to snacks. Really, you name it. Our proteins are involved.

TOM: So do you buy any of your proteins or grains on the open market? Or is it all captive growers that you have, that you have all your contracts lined up ahead of time?

NICOLE: So we strive to do as much as we can through our captive contracts, as you stated, but the supply and demand is always a tricky thing to navigate. So there are times where we will buy on the spot market and ideally from growers that we already know or have a connection with. There is some of that. We’ve been scaling our acres that we’re touching over the past few years, getting ready for our supply chain as it’s scaling. So, today, we’re touching over 200,000 acres of non-GMO and organic production in the U.S. That will continue to grow. And, really, a lot of the growth is reliant on our yellow field pea acre penetration and production capacity as increasing. Right now, we have two production plants that handle our yellow field peas, one in Oskaloosa, Iowa — so southwest Iowa — and that’s where the yellow field peas are delivered. And at that facility, they’re turned into a flower. That flower is then sent to our Turtle Lake, Wisconsin facility, where we process that flower into protein, fiber and starch. That supply chain we have been building for, really, over the past five-six years. And what’s really exciting for PURIS and our whole system is, within the next month or two, we will be commissioning our second production facility in Dawson, Minnesota — so about two-and-a-half hours west of the Twin Cities. And that facility will do more than double the amount of pea processing and protein production than we do today. And why that’s great is because now we’ll have the processing capacity to handle more peas. We can work with more growers and, ultimately, expand that acre footprint with yellow field peas. Which, from an organic perspective, is such an excellent crop to add to an organic rotation and, basically, as an additional cash crop that also provides nitrogen fixation benefits and some weed management and other things that organic producers are looking for.

Contract-Farming with PURIS 

TOM: So that leads to like no less than 100 questions. So tell me about: what does your contract look like with a farmer? How would you describe that contract? And if a farmer is interested, how do they get a hold of you?

NICOLE: If a farmer is interested, you can get a hold of us a number of ways. Check out our website, www​.puris​.com. Email me or anyone from our team. We’ll get you connected with the right team, but the website’s a great place to start. We have a grower intake form there that gets the information to our team. Then they’ll reach out to you to chat about what it’s like to grow with PURIS. But our contracts: we do primarily-delivered contracts for organic, and, again, we do full production. So the grower knows ahead of time what they’re signing up for in terms of the economics, and whatever the yield is is what we’ll purchase. We do have food-grade specs, so there are requirements around allergen management and food-grade production quality. But we work with the growers because we have state-of-the-art cleaning equipment, so we can manage the F, N and stuff that does come with organic production. Our seed that we use is proprietary, so we do ask the growers to sign our germplasm agreement. We keep that proprietary, and the grain is buyer’s call. As our facility is ready to process organics, we’ll bring it in. Our logistics team works with the grower, and we either set up or work with the grower’s internal freight to get it delivered to the plant at the right time so that we can keep the plants moving. Our plants run 247, and so it’s kind of a continuous operation. And our logistics team manages, really, that heavy lift of figuring out what trucks need to be where/​when and making sure that everything gets picked up on time.

Supporting Growers to Be Successful

TOM: So, Nicole, when you’re working with a farmer — and let’s say it’s an organic production — how much guidance do you give them in their operation? Or freedom? Do you just care that they follow organic standards? Or are you typically giving them more guidance than that?

NICOLE: Yeah, I think it depends on the grower. We are here to support the grower and help them be successful. I think what’s different from us is we’re not just an input provider. If we were just a seller, we might act a little bit differently, but we are the buyer, as well. So we have a vested interest in the grower’s success because we’re counting on that yield to feed our production. So we will partner with the grower in as many ways as we need or they need to be successful. And I think a couple examples of how we’re trying to enable growers — specifically, in crops like yellow field peas, which aren’t as widely known or used — is, this past year, we actually rolled out a private crop coverage program that provided some yield guarantees/​coverage for yellow field peas. And this was really used in a number of counties where RMA coverage wasn’t available because there wasn’t enough data. Essentially, a grower growing with PURIS and under our contract requirements automatically qualifies for some level of protection that they could opt into. We’re also rolling out financing programs to help with financing the inputs throughout that growing season, which can then be discounted at the time of delivery. So different ways to help the farmer. Then our agronomy team works with the growers if questions pop up around various pests or other things that could happen, to navigate that. So, truly, it’s as much or as little as the grower wants, and we do field scouting and those kinds of standard things, as well.

Expanding the Plant-Based Food Market

TOM: So the other side of your operation: where do, typically, your products go? Who’s the end user of your products? 

NICOLE: The answer to this question has changed so much over the past five years and when you look at our soy business because our soy business has been around for a long time. So we do non-GMO organic soybeans. Those show up in a number of places, whether it’s soy nuts. That could be in protein bars, or I don’t want to call them granola bars. I’m forgetting the word, but, basically, your bars that you would take on cycling or road trips. Soy nuts will show up in that area. Of course, soy milk is another area that it shows up in. Then, when you start to look at some South East Asia and Asian different types of dishes — natto, tofu, miso — there are some other products that our soybeans show up in. So we’ve developed soybeans that work in non-GMO and organic conditions that fit some of these specialty markets — natto beans being very small in size and having that really specific kind of water uptake and softness — but can also yield in these areas that we grow them, so balancing these specialty food-grade qualities with the ability to perform on the farmer’s ground. With the yellow field pea, this is where we’re seeing the most growth today, and I think where people are starting to hear a little bit more about the plant-based food market. That market is really growing rapidly right now, and it’s about $7 to $8 billion and expected to be to 85 billion from U.S. retail by 2030. So that’s a significant amount of growth expected over the next, really, decade. It really started in plant-based milks. So think almond milk, soy milk. That’s where it got its start, but today the growth is in plant-based meats. 

So you see things like the Beyond Burger, sausages, different things, but really everything in between. So snacks, cereals, breads, yogurts, spreads, eggs, you name it. Plant-based is starting to have some presence there, and pea protein is used in all of those applications. We started on the pea protein journey in about 2012, and, at that time, there wasn’t a lot of pea protein on the market. And it was mostly being used for animal food — so pet food or feed — and, really, the primary reason for that was flavor. It didn’t taste that great. So where PURIS has really changed and spearheaded some of this work is bringing a pea protein to market that tastes great, and that comes from our genetics. It comes from how our growers grow and, then, how we process. But at the end of the day, we have a protein that has a really neutral flavor and can be used in a variety of applications. Because I think we all know if you’re drinking a plant-based milk, you still want it to taste like milk that you’ve kind of grown up with. You don’t want it to taste like split pea soup. Getting over that hurdle has been really what’s unlocked a lot of the plant-based food industry. It’s bringing foods to market that aren’t a compromise in terms of flavor. They taste great. They taste just like what you may be expecting to eat, but there’s no compromise. You’re able to have the health benefits and some of the environmental benefits that people are looking for in those diets.

Breeding Plant-Based Foods with Genetics

TOM: These changes that have been brought through by genetics, is that something that PURIS has done? Or is it a part of a larger effort? Where do you fit into some of the genetics of making these taste better and have better properties?

NICOLE: Yeah, so genetics development has been a core part of our business since 1985. That’s how we started. My dad, when he was in college, had an internship at Asgrow and learned how to be a breeder and really developed a passion for that. So our breeding team has been developing varieties of pea/​soy/​corn for over 35 years, and that continues today. So we have our main breeding locations in southeast Iowa at our original location. But we have breeding plots kind of sprinkled around the Midwest and winter nurseries, where we send our crosses to advance them another generation and have been working on that for a long time, always with the focus of agronomics. So yield and disease resistance, kind of table stakes. Our slogan, if you will, is if it doesn’t yield, it doesn’t matter. So all the other things come secondary to that. But, then, once you have varieties that yield, now you’re starting to look at the nutritional content, nutritional density, flavor, color, shape, things that matter from a processing perspective and bringing, then, all of these attributes together into that final variety that can perform on the farm but, then, also in the plant and on the plate. We really need this trifecta for varieties to be successful in our system because we need it to check all of those boxes. So we’ve been breeding soybeans since 1985. We started breeding peas and corn in the late 90s, and so this is 20 years before pea protein is all over the news. 

We started breeding peas, and we started breeding peas not because we knew that pea protein was going to be one of the next growing proteins in the market. But my dad started breeding peas because he thought that they would be an excellent tool for organic farmers. And we needed to adapt them to other climates because they’re a cool weather crop, not well adapted for the heartland, the Corn/​Soy Belt, if you will. Because they’re not bred to withstand the disease pressure in those areas, as well as some of the extreme heat events that we see. So he started breeding them in the late 90s to add as a cover crop, essentially. And for many years, they looked like terrible plants that no one knew what we were doing. Because why would you breed these things that look like they’re always dead? And over time, he was able to find the varieties that could thrive. And when we made the pivot to producing pea protein around that 2012 area, we were able to look at, basically, our breeding program. And by that time, we had varieties that were successfully adapted for our growing areas, and we were able to, then, start really ramping those up in terms of seed stock. And fast forward now a number of years, and we’re planting those peas and the next generation of those peas on over 100,000 acres in the heartland.

Labor-Intensive Plant Breeding

TOM: So, from a personal standpoint, Nicole, I have to add. So, back in the late 70s, when I worked for Iowa State one summer, I did corn breeding, right? And it’s putting the little bag on the scale, putting the bag on the tassel. A couple days later, taking it off the tassel, putting it. Has plant breeding changed over the years? Or is it still that labor-intensive thing that you talked about when you were five?

NICOLE: Yeah, so it is labor intensive, and specifically if you’re doing conventional breeding, like we do. There’s a whole subset of breeding today that’s more lab based. So, in a lab, whether it’s GMO or doing marker-based technology, there’s a lot of breeding today that’s in a lab. That’s not how PURIS does it. We do conventional breeding. So it’s in the field, labor intensive. I would say a labor of love for those who really enjoy it because you’re looking at all the different plants, and you see all of these different traits. What’s going to be the right plant for what we’re trying to accomplish? For us, we’re looking at it, again, through those multiple lenses of what does the farmer need? What does the plant need? What does the end consumer need? And how can we find those things? But there are some basic things you’re always looking for — of course, yield, plant health, disease resistance — but, then, the other things you can layer on. So we do the manual stuff. So all the things you just mentioned — going out in the field when the tassels are coming out or the silks are coming out — and making sure you protect them because corn self-pollinates, and you have to protect what you don’t want to self-pollinate so that you can make those intentional crosses. 

That’s the work that we do every year, and I’ve done that. My brother, Tyler, who is the CEO of PURIS Proteins today, he ran our corn program when he was in high school. So I can’t take all the credit. I was the soy breeder, and he did corn. So, with soy breeding, it’s very meticulous, but you are essentially taking tweezers and taking the pollen out of tiny, little flowers and putting it on another tiny, little flower. So it takes patience, but it’s an interesting way to look at plants because you get to see the diversity in plants, which is not typically what you see when you’re looking at farming on the macro scale. You see a lot of things that look the same. In a breeding program, you get to see all of the variety, all the differences, and think about what’s possible. And I would say the biggest kind of misconception that we see or hear about on the market is that you need GMOs to have yield potential in these crops. And we just fundamentally disagree with that because we have seen the opposite of that within our breeding program, where we’re using natural breeding techniques too and getting varieties that can yield or out-yield GMO varieties. It’s a matter of focus, time and attention versus specific traits.

Future of Plant-Based Foods

TOM: So, Nicole, earlier, you said that in the last five years, your customer base has really changed. Where do you see that going in the next five years? 10 years? 15 years? Can you imagine what it’s going to look like?

NICOLE: I have a vision, but I’m very likely, highly wrong, and I’ll tell you why. So my dad, when he started the business in the mid-80s, he said, We’re going to be a plant-based food company.’ Then, for about 30 years, everyone scratched their head, saying, What? You’re a what? What is a plant-based food company? You guys are soybean breeders. What is this that you’re talking about?’ But his vision, at the time, was that people would need to eat plants, and plants should taste good. So we started on this journey, and the market wasn’t talking the same language that we were for a long time. And that has rapidly changed over the last five years. You have the market starting to talk about plant-based foods. There’s adoption of plant-based foods. You see plant-based foods at fast food chains now, which felt unheard of even 10 years ago. So there’s just this rapid evolution of consumer interest in plant-based foods and conversations around it that make it hard to predict where it’s going to go. We have seen growth happening over the last five years that has dramatically outpaced what we thought every year prior. So, every time we think we know how much it’s going to grow, it continues to beat expectations. So it’s pretty tough to predict. I can say that we’re feeling really good about the long-term potential of plant-based foods and that there’s definitely a need for protein in the future. 

I think there’s a lot of conversation. The population of the Earth is growing. We’ve got to feed people. People do need protein. And right now, the source of that protein is heavily coming from an animal-based diet. And when you look at the use of our habitable farmland over the years, a shift to more plants — a plant more forward diet — can make better use of that land, so we can feed people more resourcefully, leveraging the Earth’s resources more effectively. So, in that vein, if you can do that and deliver food that tastes great, it checks a couple boxes where people don’t have to make a compromise. So, with the shift that’s happening today, we do see a continued increase in plant-based proteins and a need for crops that are specifically designed for plant-based foods to be grown. And what I’m excited for is, really, the ability for the farmer to participate in that. I sometimes feel that there’s a tension between plant-based food and farming, and I don’t think there should be because I think it’s so important. The farmer has such an instrumental role in the plant-based food movement that, really, I think it’s bringing the two things closer together. So bringing the farmer closer to the food production, where we’re using the land to feed people directly, and I think it can be a really powerful thing when that is clear to a grower. So we have growers today that are really energized by the fact that they’re growing something that’s only one step removed from going into a product on the shelf.

New Investments in Plant-Based Protein

TOM: So, from time to time, Nicole, I follow where investment capital is, and it does seem like some really leading names have started to invest in some of the plant-based protein, plant-based meat. Is that what you’re seeing too?

NICOLE: We’re definitely seeing a huge uptick in investment into the alternative protein space, whether it’s plant-based, cell-based. Really, anything alternative protein has seen a big influx of capital, which is exciting. That definitely spurs innovation, and it gets momentum going in the market. We, as PURIS, have been the recipients of some of that a little bit earlier than what you’ve seen most recently, and we’ve really used that investment to build out our processing capabilities in, really, namely our plants. So building out our plants so that we can process these crops at scale, really at a scale that matters. And that’s what we’re excited to see: the change from plant-based proteins being kind of niche and being small to operating at scale. And that’s one of the barriers that we’ve been able to break here in the past couple years and are really excited for our next facility because we’ll be operating at a scale that’s meaningful and can start to unlock, really, our customers’ ability to grow. Because if you have a bottleneck in the ingredient supply, that can truly bottleneck the industry. So there’s a lot of investment, both from PURIS and from our other ingredient providers, to really debottleneck the ingredient supply, which will enable these consumer-facing brands to grow faster, get more points of distribution and start addressing the affordability and accessibility of plant-based foods. Because, today, it’s still not accessible everywhere. If you’re in California, you can pretty much get anything you want. If you’re in southeast Iowa, your options are more limited. So I think, once we hit that more mainstream mass distribution, where accessibility is everywhere, that’s when you’ll really start to see that tipping point where plant-based foods can start to take off.

Products with PURIS Protein

TOM: So, Nicole, you have a lot of products you produce. Can you tell us some of the products that you’re ending up in, some of the food products that you end up in? Who are the food companies and what specific products do you end up in?

NICOLE: We work with a number of brands throughout the consumer-packaged goods industry. So, starting just kind of high level, what categories does PURIS protein show up in? It’s almost any category in the grocery store: plant-based meats, plant-based milks, yogurts, snacks, cereals, breads, pretty much anything. And we work from multinational companies to smaller startups. So some examples that we can share would be one that we’re really excited about: TB12. So Tom Brady’s brand, we have helped design their plant-based protein products that they sell. Another one that’s really cool is a company out of Iowa. It’s actually an organic co-op that has focused historically on spices and has brought to market a product called Plant Boss. And it is a shelf-stable, plant-based meat meal kit that has some of Frontier’s organic spices within it. And that’s available on Whole Foods, a really exciting collaboration there. And I think we’re most known for — and the name a lot of people know of is — Beyond Meat. So they announced that we’re one of their suppliers in their SEC filing, but I think that’s just an example of some of the brands. But it’s really across almost any category in the grocery store. If it says pea protein, there’s a good chance it’s PURIS.

Leading the Way for Plant-Based Protein

TOM: I know, recently, you had quite an announcement with Cargill. Tell us maybe a little bit about the agreement between the two companies and how it’s going to change your company.

NICOLE: Yeah, so Cargill did their first investment with PURIS Proteins in 2018, and PURIS Proteins is our ingredient manufacturing part of the business. So the transformation of peas from a grain into an ingredient — so protein/​fiber/​starch. PURIS, our family and our early investors had really started down the journey of making pea protein at our Turtle Lake facility. And as we started to reach scale and realize that the market was growing really quickly, we needed to continue to further invest in CapEx at our plants, which would allow us to make more. And it got to a point where, internally, we weren’t able to do that and make our own investments into that. And Cargill really put a bet on pea protein well ahead of the curve and the growth in the industry. So they did their first investment in PURIS in 2018 and have continued to be great partners with us. So they are a partner in the ingredients processing business and today really help us as we’re scaling and adding capacity with our second plant — bringing the expertise that Cargill is known for in how you operate large, grain-handling assets at scale and do it in a way that creates best-in-class products in terms of food safety and quality — and bringing some of that knowledge to PURIS and helping us as we scale pea protein. They really have been partners with us in leading the way in North America, to bring that scaled capacity to market. So we’re thrilled within both companies, PURIS and Cargill, with our new facility in Dawson that’ll be opening up here very, very shortly and what that really means for the total available capacity in North America, where the market for plant-based protein is heavily here in North America. And if we can supply this market with products grown and made right here in the U.S., that is a win-win.

Putting Plants at the Center of the Plate

TOM: It does seem some of the companies that’ve been heavily invested in the traditional meat markets in the past are kind of hedging their bet on plant-based protein. I know that’s business, right? You’ve got to go where the business is, but that always seems a bit of a crazy world for me. Any thoughts on that?

NICOLE: Yeah, I think we generally celebrate all comers, even if they’re coming from the meat industry and want to participate in the plant-based industry. They know how to operate at scale, and scale is what we need to start making a big dent. So we typically will celebrate all, and we want to help them be successful. Really, for us, we think about what kind of products are on the market. Do they taste great? Are they good for people? And are they good for the planet? And if those three boxes can be checked, then it’s a net good thing for the world, and we want to help them do that. I’m personally excited to see it. I know that there’s going to be some fits and starts with the industry as we grow, and the animal meat industry is growing, still, too. There’s a lot of growth that people are going after, and PURIS is in this for the long haul. We’re looking at the 2050 – 2100 timing, and what is the diet of the world going to look like? We believe that there’s going to be more plants, more plant protein in that, and we want it to taste great. So we’re really trying to design a system that can work that’s scalable and, ultimately, puts plants at the center of the plate, have it be more affordable than meat production today and, ultimately, healthier for people and for the planet.

Promoting Organic Agriculture in the U.S.

TOM: Nicole, I know you’ve been active in the promotion of organics grown in the U.S., instead of maybe imported. Can you tell us what your thought process is and where you see things falling?

NICOLE: For a long time, we’ve been focused on what we call protein independence — the regional production of proteins — so growing and processing regionally. And I think this really came to a head with the COVID pandemic. We saw the supply chains globally come to a screeching halt and just all the troubles that we still continue to see with international shipping and how that fragility in the supply chain can — if you are a food-insecure area — can really come to a head if those supply chains break down. So this regional ability to grow and make your own food has been very core to our belief system. Now, that does get challenged, however, when we’re looking to work with growers in the U.S. that are following all of the standards and doing all of the really hard work to qualify for organic, only to see imported organics coming in at well under the cost of production in the U.S., making it hard for the U.S. farmer to compete. I just look, at a macro level, the growth of the U.S. organic industry but, yet, the flatness of U.S. organic acres. And that disconnect has me concerned. And we see it play out within our supply chain when we’re competing with imported organic ingredients that we make here in the U.S., with U.S. farmers paying organic prices, and the imported ingredients being sold at maybe the cost of the raw material. So, somehow, it’s been shipped around the world, and it’s not adding any costs for processing. And that’s challenging to compete with, and I think it doesn’t do any credit to the U.S. grower. And it also reduces our chances to expand the number of acres that we’re growing organically, which I think is what many, many of us want. We want to see that acreage base grow. We want to see more U.S. agriculture being sustainable, becoming a positive to the environment, not a negative. But if the market forces aren’t there to support that, it’s a hard ask to get a grower to grow something when there’s not really a market for it.

What You Should Know About Plant-Based Proteins

TOM: I want to be respectful of your time, Nicole. You’ve been great, sharing your time with us today. But one last question: if you had two minutes with a farmer in a room alone, and you are going to talk to them, what do you want them to leave knowing about PURIS? What is it that, fundamentally, you want that farmer or that grower to know?

NICOLE: Well, first thing, I would probably ask them a lot of questions. I can’t help myself. I love to understand what their operation is because PURIS is not a silver bullet. Where we come into play with the grower is if a grower is trying to diversify their source of income, whether that’s adding diversity in terms of the types of crops they’re growing and adding a different cash crop into their cycle. That’s, I think, a great conversation starter. If they’re transitioning to organic, then I would definitely want them to talk to us because we are great as a non-GMO, food-grade manufacturer and can provide offtake for crops during those transition years. Then, of course, we buy organic soy and peas today at scale. When growers are doing that, we’re a great partner in that. But I think more importantly is how we work with growers, and the way our newest varieties of yellow field peas fit in really unlocks some new potential. Instead of asking a grower to switch out a crop, can we add a crop? So go from a two-crop rotation to three crops in that same period of time. Add a growing crop. So, now, the revenue conversation is a lot different. It’s adding a source instead of trying to justify changing, and that becomes a much more interesting and, I think, dynamic conversation, where we can really try to dive into the grower’s current growing plans and systems and cycles, and where is there an opportunity to fit a new crop in?

TOM: Well, thanks, Nicole. It’s been super to talk to you. It’s been wonderful to learn more about PURIS Foods and PURIS Holdings and all the things you’re doing. You have a wonderful legacy and wonderful history at your company, obviously, and care passionately about what you’re doing, and we wish you the best of luck. And if we get to the future, and we’d like to invite you back, would you be willing to come back and do another episode?

NICOLE: Oh, absolutely. Any time we can talk about sustainable farming or organic, I am down because I find it’s just such an interesting and complicated conversation. But there’s so much potential to do a lot of good.

TOM: I agree. I agree. Well, with that, to the listening audience, thanks for listening to another episode of Organics Unpacked, and be sure to tune in every week, where we’ll unpack another facet of organic farming. Thanks to everyone.

OUTRO: Thank you for listening to Organics Unpacked. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and giving this show a five-star rating and review, so we can continue to help organic growers improve their operations.