Could eating a plant-based burger made from pea protein really change the way food agriculture works in America–and support a more sustainable way of farming? If this CEO has her way, it can. We spoke with Nicole Atchison, CEO of PURIS Holdings, who has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, and along with her brother (Tyler Lorenzen, CEO of PURIS Protein) is working to expand and create new innovations in pea growing that are helping make our food systems more sustainable: Better for farmers, the planet, and consumers alike. PURIS is answering the skyrocketing demand for plant-based (specifically pea) protein as we as a society continue the shift to a new, better way to think about food.

PURIS, a supplier of pea protein to Beyond Meat and others, is the largest supplier of pea protein in the US. It has been at the center of the explosive demand for more plant-based nutrition, as consumers reach for plant-based meats at skyrocketing rates, especially during the pandemic. The company just announced a partnership with Live Kindly Collective to innovate further and bring clean, plant-based products grown sustainably with minimal waste to more consumer brands in the future.

What does that mean for you? Eating a dinner of a plant-based burger made from pea protein could not only be better for you but also better for the planet and the farmers who grow that crop.

Atchison, CEO of PURIS Holdings, sat down with The Beet this week to talk about how the family-operated company (which has raised a total of $137.5 million, the biggest piece of it a $75 million stake from Cargill) plans to use its supply of pea proteins not only to make foods that are better for you but also better for the planet. She and her brother, former NFL Tight End Tyler Lorenzen work together on the business started by their father, Jerry Lorenzen, back in 1985.

"The plant-based food industry is experiencing unparalleled growth, on track to hit $85 billion by 2030, and the full supply chain must scale along with it,” said Nicole Atchison, CEO of PURIS Holdings. “Joining forces with LIVEKINDLY Collective allows us to push all parts of the industry forward, ensuring it scales sustainably and affordably. Both LIVEKINDLY Collective and PURIS believe in a future where our food system is a force for good – benefiting people and the planet."

The family-founded company now sees an opportunity not just to capitalize on this growing demand for pea protein, but also to innovate new, sustainable farming practices that allow farmers to take the seed, grow the crops, and improve their land use without wasting resources or time–since peas are one of the few crops that give nitrogen back to the soil. Atchison also explained they are incentivizing growth so that farmers can be sure to get paid even if a weather or world event such as COVID interrupts the growth cycle. Win, win, win.

Atchison told The Beet that during this uncertain time when meat supplies have been interrupted by the pandemic and outbreaks of COVID at meatpacking plants have put workers in even more peril than usual, PURIS is working to make the product production a positive for every stakeholder, from the farmer to the consumer who wants to eat more plant-based nutrition. Demand for plant-based burgers has grown since the pandemic and more than half of Millennials say they are eating more plant-based foods, calling themselves flexitarians, and as of last year it was already more than a 5 billion industry. Can pea farming be fixing what's wrong with our food system, from the ground up? PURIS is betting on the farms, and the answer is yes.

Atchison explains that what makes PURIS unique is that they own the entire growth loop from seed to plate. They supply the seeds to farmers, help develop best soil practices and then pay for the yield of peas that will eventually get to your table, and the latest development is to further promote sustainable clean practices that make this system available to more companies. That means more choices for consumers who want to eat better food, for themselves and the planet.

Nicole leads the team at PURIS Holdings as they continue to bring new innovations in agriculture to support a sustainable food economy. We sat down to learn about sustainable cropping systems that will do away with fields sitting fallow to regenerate since the mighty pea gives back to the soil nitrates that other crops leach from it. In a rare case of doing well and doing good, PURIS is working to expand a sustainable food system by helping farmers get a yield that ensures they can make a living while growing a crop that will be healthier for people and the environment. Atchison works on this system, which she calls from "soil to scale."

The Beet: First of all, where are you? Is it possible to work remotely when growing peas?

Nicole: I’m in Minneapolis, the HQ. With the pandemic, a lot of our team is working remotely and we have enough space to have some social distancing here. I get better internet at the office. so I come in. We are in downtown Minneapolis, a great place for food. We’re currently in a very cold streak, so I am I guess wishing I was in California right now. Hopefully, we'll start traveling again soon.

The Beet:  What sets PURIS apart from other pea growers? How can consumers know the difference?

Nicole: I think that as an ingredient supplier that's one of the challenging things is how do you really show the difference? Because when someone buys a product and turns around and looks at the label it says "Pea Protein" and that pea protein can come from a number of places. It could come from PURIS or it could come from other places and that journey of the pea is not the same.

One unique thing about PURIS is our journey starts and stays here in the United States and that’s really unique to us and it has been for years. But our journey to pea protein really starts way back in 1985 when my father, Jerry, the founder of PURIS, started developing genetics for seeds because he had a vision that people would want to eat more plants. He thought we should build plants that are designed to be made in the people's food–since back then, most plants are bred for animal food. He started 30 years ago, developing seeds with higher nutrition more bland flavor, and yet still perform for farmers.

Fast forward decades and today. We have at our own proprietary genetics everything we do is non-GMO and we sell the seeds to farmers in the United States primarily in the Midwest. They grow the peas and then we do full contracts with them so they know that they’re going to sell their crop back to us and at what price. So they can really understand what their financial model is at their farm that year.

They’re growing the seed and then they plant it so that we can produce more. The reason that we’re selling them seeds is that we work to increase the really the technology of those pea seeds so that they can have a higher yield, they are more climate-resilient, so they can withstand more heat swings. So you can always have a high yield. Some of the problems with certain crops are if it gets too hot, their seeds will drop onto the ground which from a plant perspective maybe you know ensures they survive, but from the farmer's perspective, that's not good, since now you can't harvest it.

Nicole: We've developed our peas so they can withstand really high temperatures, they use very little water but they still yield really well and they have higher protein. When we’re looking at the industry we want to think about how can we increase protein per acre while still delivering value back to the farmer. Our peas have been really bread with that use in mind and mine both for farmers and for the food industry. The farmer really nurtures the seeds in the ground to proliferate if we have enough to turn them into protein and then we buy back from them.

From a grower's perspective, they know what the entire transaction is going to look like which is unique to PURIS in a lot of respects. A lot of crops are traded either on the commodity market, or farmers harvest them and then look to find a market, If you’re growing with Puris, you know what your market is and what the price will be which is pretty unique. 

The Beet: Where are most of your pea farmers based? Midwest?

Nicole: We work with hundreds of growers throughout the Midwest and peas are typically grown in a rotation so it might not be the same for every year. Throughout the Midwest, we work with hundreds of farmers, on hundreds of thousands of acres, so it’s pretty substantial and so our plants run pretty much nonstop and we’re delivering peas all the time.

The peas go to one of our two plants in either Iowa or South Dakota, where those peas are brought in and that's where all of the rocks, sticks, and stems are removed from the peas and all the natural stuff coming from the field and then you have we call clean peas. The outside skin is taken off and that’s made into pea fiber so if you ever see pea whole fiber on a label that the outside of a pea and it’s still really high and dietary fiber. It’s also great for baking.

The peas are then ground into a flower and then it goes into a processor and you separate the protein, fiber, and starch in the separate streams so that food manufacturer can use the foundational materials to create really awesome products and those become the foundation of the plant-based milk, plant-based meat you see on the market today.

Consumers can dig a bit deeper to see where their pea protein comes from. Did it stay regional or did the peas start in Canada, get shipped to China where they're made into protein, and brought back into the United States which is a big chunk of the market too.

The Beet: How do we know where are pea protein comes from?

Nicole: You wouldn’t buy PURIS peas on the market, but you would be able to search us by buying our partner brands, the companies like Beyond that are using our materials. PURIS protein is really a neutral-flavored pea protein so where we shine is in non-dairy applications so think plant-based milk, cheeses, or cream cheese.

Of course, plant-based meat is a huge category for us, so we’re really excited to see the growth in both of those categories. PURIS is also in snacks, protein shakes, and baking. In every category, there is a plant-based solution and that’s what we’ve been working on for the past 10 years. How do we really say the proof is in the pudding, where you can now make plant-based food taste amazing. We’re here to help our partners accelerate those adoptions to get them on the market so consumers can purchase really great tasting food.

The Beet: Is pea protein better for you than other types of plant-based protein?

Nicole: From a nutritional standpoint, pea protein is a complete protein and it has all the essential amino acids. There’s been a ton of innovation from PURIS and from others in the space to improve the flavor. If you tried the protein five to ten years ago and it didn’t taste very good, I would urge consumers to give it another chance. There’s been so much work from brands and ingredient suppliers to make it better. So that's part of the reason for the growth/

Pea protein really is all about having a neutral base so that the food makers can bring out the flavors that consumers want. Most people don’t want to taste the peas, they want to take turmeric or ginger or whatever else it is they are going for. As long as we have a neutral base and a nice creamy texture, we can make a lot of great products and you see that happening today. Products coming out that are really taking what used to be a plant-based burger and it’s transforming.

In my household not everyone is plant-based and we do a lot of, "Can you tell the difference?" taste testing when people come over. It’s getting harder and harder for people to pick up the difference. I always tell people there is no way you can tell that this taco does not have meat in it and they agree. This type of innovation has moved along really fast.

The Beet: Are you plant-based?

Nicole: My journey to my diet changes didn’t start from a health perspective, it started from the idea that I just want to see if it would change how I felt. I found out I was lactose intolerant and I didn't even know it, because it never occurred to me. People always ask "Well, isn't that a hard change to make?" and I always say once I realized how much better I felt without dairy, it was a very easy change. It was such a dramatic difference to me and my everyday life.

What is interesting about plant-based is that the further you get into it the more curious you become about your food and where it comes from. The more curious you are about the food you eat, the more you learn about all the pieces of it: How does it come to be, where does your food grow? How does it get made? There’s a lot of goodness in the plant-based food industry in that regard, from planet health to general health to climate-resilient growing. That’s what I’m really passionate about: How do we tie our food and agriculture systems together to be a force for good?  There’s a ton of opportunities to make a positive impact, versus some of the negative impact that the food system has in it today.

Nicole: Peas are a nitrogen fixator, which sounds pretty fancy but all that that means is they take nitrogen from the air, which is made up of like 72% nitrogen, and they help fix it in the soil so that the plants can use it. In return, the plants give bacteria in the soil sugar. This is all part of the kind of carbon sequestration process and really just means that peas are great for soil health, which helps this revolutionary cycle making land more productive.

Our old systems have been degrading soils for years and now we're looking for ways that our culture system can start rebuilding that soil health and peas are a great piece of the puzzle. I say a piece of the puzzle because it's not the solution. The solution has to be a very holistic approach but they’re a good tool in the tool belt which is really exciting to me. If we can grow things that give back to the planet that is a really great proposition and if farmers can make a profit and increase their return for acre that makes it a win-win-win.

The Beet: So is growing organic a priority?

Nicole: PURIS s a huge believer in organic specifically USA organic and so we would love to see 100% of our products be organic. We’re working to build that market base. Peas are a beautiful solution in crop rotation because they add a third cash crop for farmers, so instead of having a year of growing just a cover crop, they can get the same benefits to the soil and still get some return. So we have a lot of success with organic farmers. On the non-GMO side, it’s been more of a journey. Peas have not been historically grown in the United States, or not in a large amount, so we’re looking at how to make peas more widely grown. Here, we're in the heart of corn and soy country, and so we are looking into how can we get farmers to take a risk and add new crops.

We’re doing that by bringing tools to the farmer and we recently rolled out a crop coverage program. This is protection for the farmer, so if there is some sort of event that prevents them from getting the yield they are looking for we guarantee they are going to be okay. Historically many growers could not get insurance or coverage through the government. So we rolled out a private coverage policy...  that allows those growers to get coverage.

Nicole: I'm from Iowa, I was born and raised in the Midwest and we’re such huge food producers. The shift [toward plant-based food choices] started on the coast and so it’s enjoyable for me to start seeing this take root here in Iowa and Minnesota and getting people really interested in it. There’s gonna be a he can be a gradual transition, but we're seeing people open to the conversation.

Nicole: The fun thing about being in this industry is seeing behind the scenes of what is happening. I love growing the grocery store and trying and all the new products so we’re constantly trying everything new. There’s a ton of innovation, new plant-based products in every category. It feels like something new is hitting the shelves all the time, which is really exciting, but I don’t think the industry is nearly done yet. There is still a ton of innovation that can happen to make the products be better, more accessible so I think it’s going to be a really fun next 10 years. in 2030 we’re gonna look back at today and laugh, as we still have no idea of what actually is about to happen. But it's going to be fun.

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