Give peas a chance: Big global business in small-town Saskatchewan

CUT KNIFE — On a quiet mid-week afternoon in small-town Saskatchewan, a modest team of five went through the ins and outs of an agri-product business collectively worth upwards of $200 million annually.

Ground operations of the headline-making business of Canadian foreign trade — often seen globally through summits and conferences like the G20 international economic forum — unfold in a less dramatic day-to-day enterprise at the Agrocorp facility in Cut Knife, Sask., about 240 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. At the plant, a team of Indian foreign nationals, Indian-Canadians and locals work to process and clean yellow and green peas.

Agrocorp, an Indo-Pacific company, is tasked with turning regional Canadian peas into starch for the international market. The company has seen been so successful since it entered Canada in 2010 — this year celebrating the 10th anniversary of formally opening of its first facility in Moose Jaw in 2013 — that in August it announced the launch of plant-based proteins and cheeses.

“We pride ourselves in saying we feed the world,” said Willian Duncan, a regional buyer with Agrocorp who works closely with the team in Cut Knife. The company’s primary exports are to the United States, China and the Philippines. Indian foreign nationals are an essential part of the Singapore-based company’s operations in Canada.

At its busiest, the grain terminal in Cut Knife processes up to 45 metric tonnes of peas per vehicle from up to 20 trucks a day. Nineteen employees work between the two plants in the town of about 600 people.

Anish Vaid, a Canadian citizen of Indian origins who’s been in the agro-product production business for 22 years, said he can process 100 metric tons of peas in two hours. He’s been living in Cut Knife for nine months, and it’s evident he’s at home among the team of locals and foreign workers. “I like living in a small town. I’m used to living anywhere,” said Vaid, who has lived and otherwise traveled to 30 countries.

He lived in Montana before moving to rural Saskatchewan.

“Most people are native Indian people. We don’t see any problems. It’s a small community,” he said.

Agrocorp International, which owns plants in Cut Knife and Moose Jaw, is one example of a major company from the Indo-Pacific working in Canada. Operating primarily in Saskatchewan and Alberta, it’s a global agri-commodity company that specialized in the sale of food products like peas, wheat and rice.

Cut Knife plant manager Jignesh Patel, who is an Indian national, said the largest strain on operations is finding local talent.

For now, they aren’t too concerned about the strife between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the government of Narendra Modi, Patel said.

“India is not the primary target.”

The Saskatchewan government said this week said it has not been contacted by Ottawa about security concerns since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made allegations that India’s government played a role in the killing of a Canadian citizen, Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in British Columbia.

Saskatchewan Trade Minister Jeremy Harrison said the claims against the Indian government are very serious and, if proven, must be taken seriously. However, he said provinces and territories should have been notified if that was the reason trade negotiations with India were suspended.

Harrison criticized Trudeau’s handling of the G20 summit in India earlier this month, where Canada paused negotiations for a new trade deal after frosty relations with counterparts in New Delhi.

Cut Knife Mayor Gwen Kaye said Indo-Canadian relations have been fruitful for the regional economy.

“They came in and bought a vacant building in our industrial park,” Kaye said of the plants operated by Agrocorp.

“Overall it’s been good for the town. We are a small town and we don’t have a lot of business.”

Patel said the Agrocorp team buys up to 70 per cent of its equipment from a local hardware store that closed last June because the owner retired.

The company continues to seek to recruit locally, but — despite paying a competitive rate of $22 an hour and offering training on the job — interest is finite, so it hires foreign and out of province workers, Patel added. Patel pointed to large cubic bags of pea powder, part of the company’s new venture into plant-based proteins. The company’s chairman and managing director, Vijay Iyengar, has discussed the venture with Trudeau as a way to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

A company spokesperson said Agrocorp hopes to explore launching the product in Canada in the near future.

Kimiya Shokoohi is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. The LJI program is federally funded by the Government of Canada.

Kimiya Shokoohi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix