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MINNEAPOLIS – The Lorenzen family was into pea protein long before it became trendy.

Iowa seed salesman Jerry Lorenzen started developing strains of organic peas in the mid-1980s. Today, his family’s company, Puris LLC, is the largest U.S. pea protein producer with more than $100 million in annual sales.

Just last month, agribusiness giant Cargill invested $25 million in Puris to help the company expand its production capacity, a federal securities filing indicates.

Minneapolis-based Puris mills yellow peas, the fodder for pea soup, into protein powder and nuggets that are used in products ranging from sports drinks to snack bars.

Growing demand: The pea protein business has taken off in recent years as consumers seek more protein generally, and particularly from plants. Soy protein has traditionally been the leading plant protein. But pea protein is surging as demand grows for organic and non-GMO food products.

“The pea business is absolutely driving the growth of (Puris),” said Tyler Lorenzen, Jerry’s son and Puris’ president.

Puris food scientists Marguerite Yang, Alex King, Kushal Chandak and Dakota Quimby did a sensory analysis of a nondairy plant-based milk using Puris protein in their Minneapolis food lab.

Puris sells seeds to farmers and then buys their harvests. The company then disassembles peas into starch, fiber and protein, though protein commands the biggest market. In 2016, Puris moved its headquarters from Oskaloosa, Iowa – where CEO Jerry Lorenzen lives – to an office near International Market Square.

The company, which employs about 150, has a pea flour mill in Oskaloosa and a plant in Turtle Lake, Wis., that makes its final product, pea protein “isolate.” Puris also has two small plants that clean organic and non-GMO soybeans, one each in Minnesota and Illinois.

The “Puris” moniker is new, rolled out last year to replace World Food Processing, its longtime name.

“We needed a better story,” Tyler Lorenzen said. So, in trying to capture the notion of purity in organic and non-GMO foods, the Lorenzens adopted a mash-up of the phrase “Pure Is.”

Origins: Jerry Lorenzen started the venture a few years after graduating in the early 1980s from Iowa State University with a degree in agricultural business. Lorenzen, who played fullback for the Iowa State Cyclones, had taken a plant genetics class in college and was already interested in plant breeding.

When he wasn’t working his day job as sales manager for a seed company, he was tinkering with soybeans and peas. He said his goal from the beginning was to “help feed kids around the world with healthy food,” as global population swelled and protein demand increased.

Eventually, he went full-time with his company, and his wife, Renee, who had a background in accounting, agreed to work with him. World Food Processing in 1999 opened its first plant in Oskaloosa, initially for soybean processing.

Over the years, Lorenzen developed pea strains that grew better in hotter climates. Peas are normally a cool weather crop, though they have a short growing season. With a hardier strain, peas can be “double cropped” in warmer climates – i.e., grown as a first crop before, say, soybeans. It was up to World Food to make products from the pea harvest.

“We had to create a market for our company,” said Tyler Lorenzen.

New products trumpeting plant protein ingredients grew by nearly 50 percent from 2012 through 2016, according to Innova Market Insights, a research firm.

Dairy alternatives: The U.S. market for dairy alternatives – which are usually made from plant proteins – is expected to be $16.3 billion this year, according to Innova. While soy and almond milk lead the way, pea milk is gaining strength.

New food products launched with soy protein claims have generally hit a plateau in recent years, according to Innova, while pea protein foods have grown at a healthy clip. Essentially, pea protein is taking market share from soy protein, though it’s still a considerably smaller market.

Puris’ pea protein plant in Turtle Lake opened in a former soy protein facility in 2011. That’s also the year that Tyler Lorenzen, long familiar with his family’s business, came to work full-time after three years in professional football.

He was the starting quarterback for the University of Connecticut Huskies in 2007 and 2008, and was then an undrafted free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars, converting to tight end. He moved onto the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad before being cut.

Tyler Lorenzen had, as he said, a moment of “What’s the rest of your life going to be about?” Plant protein was the answer after he talked to his dad about scaling up the company.

“Do you want to go big or stay small?” Tyler asked. The answer was the former.

So he moved to Minneapolis, shuttling between his home and the pea protein plant in Turtle Lake.

Distribution: A few years after Tyler came aboard, Cargill signed on to distribute Puris’ pea protein products. “It was a nice way for us to get into the pea protein isolate market and to get to know Puris better,” said David Henstrom, a Cargill vice president.

Last month, Cargill and Puris announced a joint venture for pea protein. Neither company would quantify Cargill’s investment, saying only that it was significant. However, a report recently filed with federal securities regulators indicates the outlay was $25 million.

Henstrom, who was to be named to Puris’ board recently, said Cargill is impressed with Puris’ record in pea protein. “They have worked for 32 years in this business, and they have developed a number of varieties that are great tasting.”

Jerry Lorenzen, Henstrom added, “is a visionary.”

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