A company that started out with a berry farm in the early 1930s is now a processor of one of the world’s most sought-after commodities, and one of Canada’s biggest exports.
Best Cooking Pulses Inc., headquartered in rural Manitoba, got involved in this consistently steady market — which is poised to heat up even more — by happenstance.
Many Canadians might not even recognize the word “pulse” — a noun that describes lentils, chickpeas, dried beans and peas — and they may be even more surprised to learn pulses are one of Canada’s strongest exports. Canadian producers have a 35 per cent share of global pulse production and a surprising 70 per cent of that production is exported to the tune of more than $2.25 billion annually.
This year, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, a designation that, in 2013, catapulted quinoa from near oblivion to the culinary and nutrition star it is today. And why not? Pulses have twice as much protein as wheat or rice, they’re high in fibre and have been associated with reductions in diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Add to that the fact that they’re a sustainable crop that requires far less energy than some of their competing crops, and they’re bound to continue their ascent.
Best Cooking Pulses Inc. (BCP) has actually been exporting since its founding in 1936 and the UN’s Year of Pulses coincides with BCP’s 80th anniversary.
“We’re a family company that was started by my grandfather,” says Margaret Hughes, who’s in sales and marketing. “Years ago, he and his partner had a berry farm in B.C.. When a canner set up nearby, he thought he’d grow peas for them, but by the time the first crop emerged, the canner had gone broke. Here they were in the middle of a depression with two boxcars of peas.”
What could they do? Stephen Heal thought of his First World War brothers-in-arms and remembered the Quebeckers who were affectionately called “Pea Soupers.” He headed east and strong sales launched the company into the pulse business.
“He’d be stunned by how much the market has increased,” Hughes said. “Split and whole peas are now sold all over the world; however even more encouraging is the sudden increase in pulse consumption within the North American market.”
Today, BCP, has been certified organic for 25 years, operates facilities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, processing conventional and organic pulses. In Saskatchewan, BCP splits peas and cleans whole pulses, including lentils, peas and chickpeas.
At its Manitoba facility, BCP mills a range of pulse flours — whole pulses and split pulses — and it processes increasingly sought-after pea fibre. These items are sold into human and pet food markets around the world.
BCP started processing pea fibre in the ’80s, before it was trendy, at the request of a U.K. bakery. “When you clean out the protein and grind the pea hulls into a powder, the product is greater than 90 per cent total dietary fibre,” Hughes says. “You can put it in white bread without any visual change.” The same product finds its way into nutritional beverage powders.
Hughes expects the UN designation will offer a significant boost to sales. “We work for a company that sells healthy ingredients that are good for the world. The fact that the UN has chosen to highlight pulses just adds to the impact we can make in terms of getting them into food products.”
BCP’s foray into exporting began with the U.K. When the advent of the European Common Market reduced its competitive advantage, they looked elsewhere.
“We’ve chosen to focus on North and South America,” she said. “China imports a lot of peas and makes its own pulse ingredients, but China and India are both price driven and not as focused on quality.”
Nevertheless, over the company’s exporting life it has exported to dozens of countries on six continents. “We sell to Europe, Thailand, Central and South America and the Middle East,” Hughes said.
Pulses are culinarily hot now, but they have a storied past. They were considered a light and transportable food source by the Romans, they moved north through Europe and Canadian Voyageurs carried them for times when game was scarce.
“Pulses have been a good friend to us over the years,” Hughes said.
Willy Fogang, EDC’s account manager for BCP, said he likes the company because it’s proactive. “They’re in a lot of countries and we’re happy to help them go capture those markets,” he said.
FIVE QUESTIONS IN EXPORT WITH BCP’S MARGARET HUGHES
1) What was your first export sale?
“It was in the 1940s, I don’t have many details, but I expect that it was to England.”
2) How did that first export opportunity arise?
“I’m not sure; I wasn’t even born! I know that my grandfather was from the U.K. and emigrated to Canada, so he will have known there was a market for pulses in England.”
3) When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
“It’s a very different time now and there’s a lot more assistance available. For our company now, there are organizations like EDC [with whom it has accounts receivable insurance and a performance guaranty] and other export insurers. There are trade commissioners who are available to support and help. They’ve been there since my time, but not during my grandfather’s.”
4) How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
“The world has shrunk, with opportunities in many markets. We look forward to witnessing the growth in the pulse industry over the next several decades.”
5) What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
“I would advise companies new to exporting to be cautious, always get paid before you release goods, and of course rely on services such as the EDC. If you don’t, you can quickly get into real trouble.”