Toban Dyck, writer and farmer
Pulse Beat 96, Fall/Winter 2022
THE FIRST TIME I reached out to Fitzpatrick, she was far, far away.
“All our puny sorrows are put into perspective when you see things like the pyramids,” she said. “When you first contacted me, I think I was on the Nile.”
This story has nothing to do with Egypt or the Nile, but it is about how success for novel and niche pulse crops involves seeing the forest for the trees, and thinking more broadly than our home borders.
What began as a curiosity in 2019 has, as of spring 2022, grown into something Fitzpatrick enthusiastically calls “the greatest success story.”
This story is also a uniquely Manitoban one. It involves many players working together in ways that should assure all of us farmers that, whether or not we’re paying attention, the agriculture industry is abuzz with innovation and strategic partnerships.
In 2019, on behalf of Red River College Polytechnic’s Prairie Research Kitchen (PRK), Fitzpatrick contacted the team at Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers (MPSG) to put together a short list of pulse varieties that PRK could start experimenting with. PRK wanted to investigate new sources of protein alternatives for tofu. “I’ve known [MPSG Executive Director] Daryl Domitruk for years,” says Fitzpatrick. “It was so great to chat with him and his team and we absolutely needed their expertise in selecting varieties that could potentially substitute for soy protein in tofu. In the end, we supplied PRK with pintos, navies, fava and hemp.”
According to its website, Prairie Research Kitchen is an arm of RRC Polytech that “brings together a unique blend of food science and culinary arts to develop solutions for our clients.” It’s a busy place and it seems to be a ground zero for a lot of interesting food innovation initiatives.
For this particular study, PRK partnered with the University of Manitoba’s Department of Food and Human Nutritional Sciences, the Food Development Centre, Manitoba Agriculture’s Canadian Agricultural Partnership and MPSG.
The focus was investigating the coagulation properties and characteristics of various pulses. Traditional tofu is, simply put, coagulated soy milk pressed into the shapes associated with the food. It has a distinctive texture and its market share is growing, as consumers continue to grow an appetite for plant-based proteins. In 2020, tofu had a market size of USD $2.5 billion, a number that is higher today and growing. Soy is widely respected as a high-protein use Tofu alternative to meat.
PRK determined that, out of all the pulses and the hemp that it tested, fava beans were not only a suitable alternative to soy, but, in some cases, a better ingredient for tofu.
“It has a unique protein structure,” says Fitzpatrick, who helped manage the project. “There is no aftertaste. It was perfect for tofu.”
Prairie Fava is run by Manitoba farmers and innovators Hailey and Cale Jefferies. They have been innovating the fava bean industry for many years.
Fitzpatrick has worked closely with Prairie Fava since 2017. She has watched and helped them model a unique – and, perhaps, ideal– way to market crops outside the sell-at-bulk mindset associated with other crops grown across the prairies.
I have written about Prairie Fava for Pulse Beat before. Hailey Jefferies is a former MPSG board member. Her business prowess and desire to innovate was strong then, and, from what I can tell, it may be stronger now.
Through linkages between Protein Industries Canada (a federally funded innovation promoter), Big Mountain Foods (a plant-based company based out of B.C.) and Prairie Fava, a new market for fava beans has been established.
“Developing a great relationship with Big Mountain Foods has been fantastic,” says Hailey Jefferies, CEO of Prairie Fava. “It means what is grown in Canada is also being processed in Canada and the end product is manufactured in Canada – this is the best example of adding value to a crop.”
In response to a market seeking alternatives to soy, Big Mountain Foods took interest in the research being done by PRK after being alerted to its research by Protein Industries Canada. Fitzpatrick’s role as the facilitator for the project, her connection with MPSG and both MPSG’s and Fitzpatrick’s connection to Prairie Fava meant that all pieces of this somewhat disparate collection of actors could work together with efficiency.
Fast forward to spring 2022: Big Mountain Foods releases a product called Soy-free Tofu. “A first-to-market innovation, the Big Mountain Foods Soy-free Tofu is made 100% with Canadian fava beans and contains so much protein it’s THE superfood of superfoods,” reads a product description from Big Mountain Food’s website. “In fact, the Soy-free Tofu contains 95% more protein than leading soy-tofu brands, making it the perfect plant- based protein alternative.
“Fava beans pack a powerful punch of goodness rich in dietary fibre, proteins, vitamins and minerals, and like all Big Mountain Foods products, Soy-free Tofu is the perfect addition to any meal, tastes delicious, and is simply really good for you.”
“In addition to these attributes, they have agronomic benefits, as well,” says Laura Schmidt, MPSG production specialist. Faba beans are an effective disease-break crop, as they are non-host to Aphanomyces. Faba beans are not as prone to lodging as other crops. They can withstand high levels of moisture and faba beans have the best nitrogen fixing abilities of all pulse crops.”
Soy-free tofu is made from Manitoba fava bean flour from Hailey’s and Cale’s won the Product Of The Year gold medal at the 2022 B.C. Food and Beverage awards ceremony.
“Big Mountain Foods’ Soy-Free Tofu took the spotlight for the evening, winning the top award for Innovation as well as the first-place prize (gold) for Product of the Year. A product six years in the making, Big Mountain’s category- disrupting soy-free tofu product is a testament to the company’s leadership position in plant-based foods,” read a release from a food innovation website. “It is the first tofu product on the market to be made entirely from Canadian fava beans, sourced from a local farmer who shares Big Mountain’s commitment to sustainability.”
Manitoba’s pulse industry usually hovers at around 350,000 acres. While small compared to larger crops like soybeans, canola and wheat, the market potential for pulses seems to be only limited by one’s imagination and drive.
“Pulses are not the biggest industry we have here in Manitoba, but they are important crops in terms of economic and agronomic diversification,” says MPSG’s Daryl Domitruk. “Prairie Fava’s success in bringing a new product to market through the strong industry connections they have developed is a business model that could potentially apply to many more crop types. There is a segment of the marketplace reserved for this niche and novel approach to food production. Similarly, we find most farmers are willing to reserve a few acres to test new crops for their agronomic financial potential. Within the pulse family we’ve only scratched the surface of may be possible in Manitoba.”
Fitzpatrick agrees. She has been working in the industry for at least 25 years and she knows a lot about pulse proteins and where that market is heading.
She predicts there is plenty of room for more innovation around the uses of pulse crops. Conversations are happening now about using pulses in whole food ingredients, isolates and extruded products.
“We need to continue adding value to crops grown in Canada,” says Jefferies. “We have seen over the last few years just how critical supply chains are, and I think continuing to add value to all crops, not just fava, is crucial to keeping them strong. Even though we are focused on fava beans as a company, we believe in biodiversity and how important that is for farmers and the consumer.”
Manitoba’s MERIT Functional Foods, Protein Industries Canada, Pulse Canada and Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers are all involved and interested in continuing to innovate the pulse protein market.
This, however, is a specific story involving a specific crop, and it’s a story that Manitoba should be proud of.
“They were at the right place at the right time and they came to the table with a strong grower network and solid industry partnerships,” says Fitzpatrick.
Well done, Prairie Fava!