Plant-based protein has become increasingly popular in recent years, thanks to products like the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Whopper.

Even Kentucky Fried Chicken gave meatless meat a try. They somehow produced fried chicken that wasn’t actually chicken. It sold out within hours at the restaurant where it was tested in Atlanta, Georgia.

With the demand for plant protein growing, Roger Sinha thinks it’s time for the valley to get on board by increasing the number of acres planted with yellow peas.

Sinha, who works for Platte Valley Group and Venture Capital, admitted he doesn’t know how to grow peas, but he says he knows how to make them profitable.

During a seminar on Wednesday at the University of Nebraska’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Sinha shared with a group his ideas for creating economic growth in the Panhandle though the use of plant protein.

“My goal here today is very simple,” Sinha said. “My heart goes out to all the farmers ... I really want to find a way to improve their quality of life.”

He started out by bringing attention to the shifts that major companies are beginning to make when it comes to plant-based proteins.

Tyson, he said, is always associated with chicken but it is no longer a chicken company, instead branding itself as a protein company.

Like many other major players in the food game, Tyson had been quietly investing resources into developing a chicken-less product. In June, they unveiled their plant-based nuggets.

Plant protein isn’t just for vegans, Sinha said, it is also an alternative protein source for the growing number of people with food allergies or gluten intolerance.

“There is a paradigm shift taking place,” Sinha said.

Despite the increasing demand, Sinha said, pea production in the United States has decreased. In 2016, there were more than 55,000 acres of dry peas planted in Nebraska - this year, it was 30,000.

Mark Watson, a local pea producer, spoke briefly about the benefits of filling fields with peas instead of fallow, including his own experiences with increased nitrogen levels in the soil that have been backed up by research in recent years.

“The best winter wheat yields we’ve had have been from fields that had peas,” Watson said.

He also brought up potential reason for the decrease: low profit margins.

“We know we can grow them here and we know they work well,” said Watson. “Unfortunately, the market place hasn’t been very good. We’ve sold peas off our farm for $10 a bushel, but now it isn’t even half of that.”

That’s where Sinha comes in. He told the audience stories of others who have profited significantly off of peas before showing the group farm-level profitability and break-even models that he says could be utilized by producers who are considering adding peas to their crop line up.

He outlined what it would take to build a protein manufacturing plant in Scottsbluff, which included cash-flow analysis modeling of the plant distribution, marketing and the economic impact.

The investment would be considerable. By his estimates, a wet and dry processing facility would cost upwards of $100 million. However, Sinha believes investors would see a profit within the first year.

“My feeling is this — completely unbiased — the Panhandle is ideally suited to build a plant,” Sinha said. “It would have no nearby competition and because of the close proximity to Interstate 80, the location would be a good one logistically, he said. Additionally, it would diversify the Panhandle’s economy.

Right now, the valley would have what Sinha called “first mover advantage,” meaning that few have taken the leap to build one of these facilities — there are only three in the country, with a fourth currently being constructed.

Sinha told the group he had made calls to companies who said they would be open to investing in the area, but it would need to be pursued further.

In addition to the protein plant, Sinha has other ideas for improving the panhandle.

He envisions an Innovation Center, which he says will have a mission statement of “inspiration improving lives.”

“It matters most because it’s going to be an education hub for us,” said Sinha.

He sees it as a place in the community where students of all levels, researchers and producers can come together to further propel the valley into the future by embracing research and technology, ultimately improving the lives of everyone here.

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Kamie Stephen is a reporter with the Star-Herald. She can be reached at 308-632-9041 or via email at kamie.stephen@starherald.com.

Kamie Stephen is a reporter with the Star-Herald. She can be reached at 308-632-9041 or via email at kamie.stephen@starherald.com.

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