Family-based W.A. Grain & Pulse Solutions aims to move into fractioning

Family-based W.A. Grain & Pulse Solutions aims to move into fractioning

By Sasha Roeder Mah

W.A. Grain & Pulse Solutions opened in a leased space in Innisfail in March 2007. With a staff of two — Tracey Chivilo managing the books and her husband, CEO Chris Chivilo, doing just about everything else — the company got its start cleaning and selling green and yellow peas for nearby farmers.

Today, the company still deals in green and yellow peas, but it’s grown to include all cereals, oilseed varieties and pulses — a product expansion that has been accompanied by massive income growth. During the first year their sales totalled about $7 million. In 2016, they saw their highest gross — $136 million — but those numbers have since tapered off as the price of lentils plummeted from $800 per tonne to what is now closer to $350 million. This year, the company projects sales in the $95-million range.

From left, Tracey and Chris Chivilo in front of their company’s home office in Innisfail

While their home office remains in Innisfail, W.A. Grain now owns six processing facilities in Alberta and Saskatchewan. And their core group of four Alberta-based suppliers has expanded to 18, spread across the country.

Chris now employs about 45 full-time staff, but one thing remains the same — his inner circle is populated by family — including wife Tracey, son Christian, sister Gina and sister-in-law Lorraine — and a few close friends, many of whom he has lured away from thriving careers and, in some cases, companies of their own

“We’ve created an exciting environment with all kinds of potential,” he says with a laugh. “It was an easy sell.”

Loyalty is one reason Chris anchors the business with close friends and family, but, most importantly, he says, “We all share the same vision and are shooting for a common goal.”

Today, that common goal involves an ambitious plan to move into fractionating.

“The food-processing business is virtually untapped in Alberta and there are entrepreneurs here that are changing that,” says Chris. He may be a natural entrepreneur but, adds Chris, market volatility is the main driving force behind this move.

“That is the primary reason we’re looking at fractioning — to diversify into offering more value-added products. If you’re just trading a commodity that anyone can trade, it always comes down to price and service, and there’s not a lot of room to move between the two.”

In preparation for launching his own fractioning facility, and with support from Alberta Pulse Growers and Alberta Agriculture, Chris has leveraged an Alberta Innovates grant to partner with both the Food Processing Development Centre (FPDC) in Leduc and the University of Alberta for research support.

Working closely with the FPDC, Chris has spent the past several years looking at ways to make the existing wet fractioning process more economical, more environmentally friendly and less complicated. He credits the FPDC team for their unwavering enthusiasm and support.

“It took me a year and a half to figure out what I was looking at, but once I got an understanding of that, I met with the researchers with suggestions.” At the FPDC, he says, “there are no stupid ideas and they’re always excited to try new methods.”

Wet fractioning, explains Chris, extracts concentrated proteins and starches from pulses such as faba beans — about 30-per-cent protein before processing — that have been dehulled and ground into a fine powder. Typically, the powder then passes through an air classifier, a mixture of water and acids, and a spray dryer, resulting in a concentrate of about 80-per-cent protein and purified starch.

“Our process eliminates most of the acid,” says Chris, making it more environmentally friendly and better for the health of the consumer.

“We also use less water — and 90 per cent of it is recycled in the process — and less natural gas.”

The FPDC has successfully tested this improved process several times, says Chris, and he plans to have a larger lab set up this winter for more scalable testing. “You’re always a little nervous when you’re going from 100 kilograms every three hours to five tonnes an hour,” he admits, but the testing done so far gives every indication they’re on the right track.

Meanwhile, over at the U of A, researchers worked on product development using Chris’s faba bean protein isolate. A protein bar was wildly popular in blind taste tests across the campus, beating out competitors currently in stores. They also designed a protein-drink mix and an extruded cereal — similar to Corn Flakes — that tested very well. Not one to be wasteful, Chris would also like to see the starch isolate be used, in products such as vermicelli noodles.

With 15 acres leased in Bowden, plans drawn up, and the process and product research nearing completion, all that remains now is to secure financing to build a fractioning facility that, once operational, will employ up to 50 full-time staff. Ideally, says Chris, construction will begin in mid-2020, with operations starting no later than fall of 2021. While Chris’s immediate plans don’t include actual food production, knowing that his protein product can be used in flavourful recipes is buoying his plans.

“We have a lot of contacts in every area — overseas and domestic,” Chris says. “We know if we build it, they will come.”

 

Sasha Roeder Mah, a former assistant editor for the Edmonton Journal, is a freelance communications consultant.

Posted on January 16, 2019

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