Columbia Grain International (CGI) facilities in Plentywood, Mont., and Ross, N.D., are geared up to meet the massive demand for pulse and grain foods around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“CGI has the largest processing capacity of any singular processing company in the U.S., and we’ve been experiencing a nearly 50 percent increase in demand for shelf-stable dry pulses,” said Jeff VanPevenage, CGI president and CEO.
CGI’s new pulse plant in Plentywood, which opened in December, processes about 100,000 metric tons of product per year – at least it did before the pandemic.
“We wanted to build a pulse facility with more capacity than what we were selling at the time, so that we can grow into it,” he said. “That is why it has the extra capacity it does.”
They built their pulse processing facility in Plentywood because it was in the middle of the largest pulse-producing region in the country in northeastern Montana/northwestern North Dakota.
Farmers have been growing pulses in the region for up to three decades.
In 2005, VanPevenage said local farmers called and asked CGI to open a pulse receiving facility. CGI opened downtown in the old General Mills grain building.
Twelve years later, CGI decided to break ground in 2017 on a pulse processing operation in Plentywood located next to its shuttle loading facility. However, it took until last year to finish the work on the facility.
“When the processing of peas and lentils got bigger, we built the processing plant in Plentywood,” he said.
CGI had outgrown its General Mills location, although it is still used today. VanPevenage pointed out the capacity just wasn’t large enough to fulfill customer needs.
“We could never have breakdowns or we would get further behind. We were constantly being late in our shipments to our customers around the world,” he said. “Plentywood CGI is 100 percent up and running now. We just need to add asphalt around the facility.”
The new plant has enabled CGI to create more markets to support farmers in the area, produce pulses that are cleaned, bagged and ready to eat.
“Plentywood is now one of the most modern facilities in North America for cleaning and processing these products,” he said.
It has also created more storage for processed product.
In Plentywood, the pulse processing has two lines and all the state-of-the-art equipment a modern pulse facility should have.
“We have pre-cleaning, so we do a pre-clean when pulses come in, and we can process through other equipment faster,” VanPevenage said. “We have air screening and sizing. If there is a longer stem, it will take that out.”
The plant has gravity decks, used for separating the light materials from the product and a stone separator.
“The destoner (stone separator) is a pretty amazing piece of equipment. A magnetic dirt sorter pulls out dirt and other impurities,” he said.
Color sorters will “kick out a red or green lentil, depending on which is needed.”
They have pulse processing machines, vibrating and rotation screens, and polishers. Then there is the high-tech bagging line.
“Our bagging is all robotic and it does it very fast. We get the product ready and process it and the robotic bagger bags it quickly,” he said.
CGI puts pulses into 25-kilo bags and 100-pound bags, along with 1-ton totes that are sent to food companies in the U.S. and around the world.
The future of Plentywood is in fractionation.
“To be able to fractionate is our next project. We’ll be getting into pulse flours and protein isolates,” he said.
Across CGI’s footprint, there are eight processing plants for peas, lentils and dry beans.
The current pulse plant in downtown Plentywood concentrates more on bulk hopper product and added mustard to the commodities it handled.
CGI also bought a pea and lentil processing company in Chester, Mont., and Ross, N.D.
“Ross is geared to green and yellow peas and some flax. It is organically licensed for an organic product and that’s what it focuses on,” VanPevenage said.
Green peas from Ross go to niche commodity Asian markets, as well as to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey.
VanPevenage expects pulse crop demand will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, and he hopes farmers in the region will think about planting these types of commodities to help keep the supply chains going.