The humble yellow field pea has suddenly become a hot commodity, fueled by the explosive growth of products such as Beyond Meat burgers and Ripple milks that rely on the pea for their protein content. Meanwhile, Maine’s farmland is well-suited to growing yellow field peas, and some farmers have recently added the crop to their rotations.

But can Maine’s agricultural sector profit from the growing vegan market? It hinges on processing.

Despite the name, field peas are actually beans (or legumes), like chickpeas or lentils. They’re known as “field peas” when fresh. Once dried, yellow peas can become key ingredients in a range of vegan products.

Aroostook County organic farmer Jake Dyer, vice president of the family-owned Benedicta Grain Co. and an agronomist with the Maine Potato Board, first planted yellow field peas in 2015, rotating the crop with grains. He now sees potential for this farm-friendly crop in Maine.

“Peas are a great fit for our climate here in Maine,” Dyer said in a telephone interview. “They have a lot of value from an agronomic point of view.”

Dyer appreciates that field peas are planted and harvested using grain equipment rather than specialized gear. Also, yellow field peas tolerate drought and fix nitrogen in the soil, so farmers need fewer soil amendments, such as compost, to nourish the peas and subsequent crops.

In July, Bloomberg reported yellow pea “prices are moving higher” in response to “the alt-protein craze” and that “growers in the U.S. and Canada are now rushing to put more peas in the ground.”

“This represents a transformation in the industry from traditional use to an ingredient,” said Jeff Rumney, vice president of marketing at the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council and the American Pulse Association, both industry trade groups based in Idaho. “We are where corn and soybeans were 60 years ago. Our ingredients have a certain advantage that fit the demand for plant-forward, clean labels. Therefore our producers benefit from a growing global demand.”

While few of those producers are in Maine, those who are find the crop grows well here.

“We’ve had good yields,” Dyer said. “We can get yields that are comparable and oftentimes higher than farms out in the Midwest. Peas like cool weather.”

According to Dyer, farmers in top yellow pea–growing states can expect an average of 50 bushels of peas per acre. On his northern Maine fields, Dyer said he’s gotten up to 70 bushels per acre.

Dyer’s experience is backed up by research conducted at the University of Maine Rogers Research Farm in Old Town, where field trials with yellow peas were conducted by Cooperative Extension from 2013 to 2015 and produced yields from 45 to 74 bushels per acre.

“Results from this third year of trials at the University of Maine further confirm that field pea is a viable rotation crop in organic cereal/pulse rotations,” said the final report written by University of Maine Cooperative Extension specialists Ellen Mallory and Tom Molloy.

A yellow field pea pod. Photo courtesy of the Benedicta Grain Co.

“I do believe there is great potential for Maine farmers to grow field peas,” Mallory, a sustainable agriculture professor, wrote in an email. “There has been talk about (field peas) as a potential crop to meet the demand of the new markets,” she said. “Maine’s ability to take advantage of the expanding market for plant-based proteins will depend on processing infrastructure.”

Accessing the burgeoning plant-based food market is a challenge for Maine farmers because the state has just one processing facility that can handle food-grade field peas – the Maine Grains grist mill in Skowhegan.

“We are buying yellow peas from Jake Dyer in Benedicta to make a yellow pea flour that is used by chefs for baking with and for culinary purposes,” said Amber Lambke, co-founder and president of Maine Grains. “It’s a great gluten-free flour for making things like tart crusts and crepes, and my understanding is that it can be used as a vegan mayonnaise substitute.”

(Vegan mayonnaise is made with yellow pea flour and other bean flours by stirring the flour into boiling water until it thickens, then emulsifying the mixture with vegetable oil and seasonings in a high-speed blender. The vegan brand Just Mayo includes pea protein.)

To serve the small market of high-end chefs, Maine Grains buys roughly two tons of yellow field peas each year.

“We have had inquires from very large companies in urban areas looking for more yellow pea protein for things like mail order frozen smoothies,” Lambke said. “Maine does not quite yet have enough volume to supply customers like this, but certainly has the potential. The peas are easy for us to clean and mill here at Maine Grains.”

Lambke said the mill would need to process at least 20 tons of field peas to supply larger buyers. If more field peas were being grown in Maine, Lambke said the mill has the capacity to process them.

Other than Maine Grains, the closest large-scale, food-grade buyer is the brand-new W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions’ $8 million processing plant in Slemon Park, Prince Edward Island in Canada. The facility cleans yellow field peas and other beans and grains.

Statistics provided by the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council show that more than 800,000 acres were planted in dry peas across the U.S. in 2018 compared to fewer than 5,000 acres in Maine.

Dyer said he knows of at least four other Maine farmers who’ve started growing yellow field peas, at least one of whom is rotating the peas with potatoes.

“In order for anything to take off in popularity with growers, we have to have a stable marketplace,” Dyer said.

Maine’s proximity to Canada could prove an advantage. Recognizing the economic potential of the rising vegan food market, the Canadian government is investing millions in the growing and processing of key plant-based food ingredients, such as yellow field peas. Not only is there the new W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions plant, but last year the Canadian government made $153 million in matching funds available to the Proteins Industry Canada supercluster in Regina, Saskatchewan, designed to be a hub of plant-based protein processing.

Rumney, at the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, said the Chinese government is making similar investments in plant-based foods.

Other Canadian projects underway include a $400 million pea processing facility under construction in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, that is due to open next year. The plant will break the peas apart into protein, starch, fiber and hulls and sell the components to food manufacturers. And near the Canadian city of Winnipeg, in Manitoba, ground is about to be broken for a $65 million facility expected to process 20,000 tons of yellow field peas each year and produce an isolated pea protein that can be blended with other plant proteins for use in vegan meats and milks.

Here in Maine, the peas are thriving, but the market awaits more buyers. “The next step for this to have a chance to get off the ground is someone at the Potato Board or someone at the university needs to make connections with some of the manufactures of these products,” Dyer said.

Then Maine farmers might have a chance to profit from the fast-growing vegan food market.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected] 

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

 

 

 

 

 


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