Economy Features

Building a protein powerhouse

Buffalo Creek CEO Ryan Penner with white bags of rolled oats. Supplied photo.

Manitoba Protein Advantage Strategy is providing a blueprint for global success.

When Buffalo Creek Mills opened its doors in 2015, shareholders of the Altona oat processor had an admirable purpose and practical plan.

“We were born from the desire to make a positive impact within the community and we wanted to do that through economic development,” says Ryan Penner, the Manitoba company’s chief executive
officer and shareholder.

The group bought a local food-grade facility in 2014 that had been built for lentils and beans but never operated and was in receivership. Oat-milling equipment was installed and it was all systems go. “We’ve always had a philosophy of crawl, walk, run,” says Penner, a former civil engineer and consultant who was born on a southern Manitoba farm. “We started fairly slowly. At that time, we were producing raw oat groats for the pet food and the feed industry.”

It didn’t take too long for expansion opportunities to present themselves, especially with a growing global demand for plant-based food ingredients that’s led to more business supports and a provincial strategy. “Since that time, it’s been a different world,” Penner says of 2015. “I’ve always said that oats are pretty sexy and the world seems to be agreeing with me at the moment. Traditional oat demand has been steady, but now there is a more recent explosion of plant-based beverages. For me, specifically oat-based beverages. It’s impacted the market in a substantial way.”

First-in-Canada Technology

Buffalo Creek Mills kiln installation. Supplied photo.

Expansion into the stabilized and pasteurized human edible industry got underway when Buffalo Creek Mills invested in a customized oat kiln, helped by a $5.1-million loan from the federal AgriInnovate program. “We have additional components added to the kiln to allow it to be more flexible in creating different flavour profiles and doing that quickly and producing some novel products if we want,” Penner says. “Those are the types of things that this first-in-Canada technology allows us to do.”

The 12-metre Revtech kiln was lowered through the facility’s roof in September 2021 and production began last year. “Buffalo Creek Mills started in 2015 with an annual production capacity of 25,000 metric tonnes,” Penner noted. “However, in order to meet demand, we expanded our facility to its current capacity of 50,000 metric tonnes.” Its products include rolled oats, quick oats, steel cut oats, oat groat and oat flour.

“We’re very thankful for that support,” Penner says of AgriInnovate. “That’s a core foundation that allowed us to make that investment and to take that next step.” The company also received a $533,800 grant through the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP). It was used for the kiln installation and development of the packaging line and food-safety processes, Penner says, adding an improved cleaning line allowed it to achieve a gluten-free standard.

Growth was also seen in the hallways of Buffalo Creek Mills. It began with three employees in 2015 and increased to about 20 when it was still keying on raw-product development, Penner says. Since the addition of the kiln, it employs 40-45 people and operates on a 24/7 basis.

Manitoba Protein Advantage

Buffalo Creek Mills is one of dozens of Manitoba businesses helping to propel the Manitoba Protein Advantage Strategy, which encompasses animal and plant protein. The provincial government launched the strategy in 2019 with the goal of making Manitoba a global leader in the development and production of sustainable protein.

Its action plan called Project ASPIRE (Accelerating Sustainable Protein Impact and Results) keys on collaboration by government, industry and academia in 10 “pillars” or functional areas. “We saw that world demand for protein is growing, whether that’s plant or animal protein,” says Maurice Bouvier, Manitoba Agriculture’s assistant deputy minister. “Certainly there’s been lots of interest in the plant protein market growth. We saw an opportunity to add more value to what we produce on the farm in Manitoba, to process more of those products from Manitoba farms to increase value.”

Numbers show strong progress toward the strategy’s two key objectives. When it was launched, it aimed to attract $1.5 billion in new investments in animal and plant protein and create 1,550 jobs by 2025.

The province released an update in December 2022, announcing $823 million in new investments and 912 jobs since 2019. Bouvier says plant protein accounts for $485 million and 276 jobs. He noted the $485 million only includes $200 million of the investment Roquette made for its pea protein plant in Portage la Prairie, which is the largest in the world. The French company announced the plant in November 2017 with an initial $400-million investment and later increased its scope and investment after 2019.

“There were four main attributes that positioned Manitoba as a key contender when we were shortlisting possible locations for the world’s largest pea protein plant,” says Dominique Baumann, managing director for Roquette Canada Ltd. “Access to clean hydroelectric power, skilled labour, transportation connectivity, and the proximity to yellow pea growers all gave Manitoba a competitive edge over other locations.”

Located in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Roquette’s Portage pea protein plan has been producing NUTRALYS® pea protein isolate since October 2021. Some other businesses counted under new plant protein investments include Avena Foods (pulse flours); NutriPea (pea protein ingredients); Paterson GlobalFoods (oat ingredients); and Merit Functional Foods (pea and canola protein ingredients), which was founded in 2019 but went into receivership March 1, 2023.

In a LinkedIn post, Merit CEO Ryan Bracken wrote cash flow was a factor and the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its business plan was “rough.” Prior to the news, Bouvier said Merit made $150 million in capital investment to build its facility and CAP contributed $2.5 million toward its equipment.

A five-year, federal-provincial cost-sharing partnership, CAP ends March 31 but Bouvier expects a new one to be rolled out by April 1.

Growing Partnerships

Sources of financial assistance also include Protein Industries Canada (PIC), an innovation cluster that co-invests federal funds in small and large projects within the country’s plant protein sector.

One example of PIC’s wide reach is the support it gave Roquette and Assiniboine Community College last year to develop two diploma programs. The Chemical Engineering Technology program is the first of its kind in Manitoba, while a Food Science one is the first in the Prairies.

“It’s a great example of industry and academia working together on what industry needs to operate now and succeed in the future,” Bouvier says.

The University of Manitoba also plays a big role in the strategy’s research component. Dr. James House, a professor in the school’s Food and Human Nutritional Sciences department, developed a protein research strategy with research associate Dr. Erin Goldberg. It includes more than 40 research projects.

Penner is optimistic the Manitoba Protein Advantage Strategy can help businesses such as Buffalo Creek Mills grow together. “I see a significant amount of plant protein investment in Manitoba in our future,” he says. “From an oat perspective, I think we’re well situated to grow further. “And from some of the other investments in Manitoba that have been successful, there’s obviously advantages to Manitoba.”

More than plants

Manitoba’s protein strategy also covers more than just plants—it also includes beef, pork, processed meat, dairy products and even arctic char.

The province is committed to both a 35 per cent increase in animal protein processing and in animal protein production, with a commitment to reduce carbon intensity per kilogram of animal protein by 15 per cent. The vision is “to become North America’s protein supplier of choice, leading Canada in sustainable protein industry growth that benefits the profitability and competitiveness of Manitoba producers, processors and the provincial economy.”

Dickson Gould is a member of the Manitoba Protein Consortium, and president of the Progressive Group. “The Province of Manitoba has reported a minimum of $335 million in new investments into animal protein production and processing since 2019. There have also been reports of over 630 new anticipated new jobs through projects completed through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership. With the new Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership just announced, Manitoba is looking forward to seeing animal protein producers and processors look for opportunities to invest in improving the sustainability of their operations, with support from all levels of government,” says Gould. “We have all the critical elements in Manitoba to be a world leader in sustainable protein.”

Focusing on the future

The Manitoba Protein Advantage Strategy has an action plan called Project ASPIRE (Accelerating Sustainable Protein Impact and Results). The plan keys on collaboration by industry, academia and government and was developed by an advisory board of industry leaders. An appointed industry committee forms the Manitoba Protein Consortium to provide leadership.

A Project ASPIRE hub was created to implement the plan around the strategy’s 10 “pillars” or functional areas of sustainable animal and plant protein. The hub is hosted by the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters and features industry-led roundtables to identify priority actions and coordinate strategic activities for each of the pillars.

The pillars are:

  1. Branding, communications and marketing
  2. Enabling policy and infrastructure
  3. Finance
  4. Information and knowledge (research)
  5. Innovation
  6. Measurement, monitoring and verification
  7. Soil, ecosystems and biodiversity
  8. Sustainable protein
  9. Workforce
  10. Working together (roundtables)


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