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SunOpta in Alexandria benefits from expanding industry, employees

SunOpta Inc. completed a $26 million expansion at its Third Avenue plant last year.

Dave Kraemer.jpg
Dave Kraemer drives a forklift at SunOpta Inc. in Alexandria, which completed a $26 million expansion at its Third Avenue plant last year. (Contributed photo)
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SunOpta Inc. completed a $26 million expansion at its Third Avenue plant in Alexandria last year to meet a growing demand for oat milk, and that market has only continued to expand.

In 2020, plant-based milk grew twice as fast as cow's milk to now make up 15% of the entire milk category.

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Armando Bravo is an employee of SunOpta Inc., which plans to double its business over the next five years. (Contributed photo)

According to SunOpta plant manager Joe Gerhardt, the market for plant-based alternatives currently stands at $29-$30 billion, and is projected to reach $162 billion by 2030.

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"When you have the demand and you have the potential, which we do with this new expansion, we're going to be able to service that growth," Gerhardt said.

The timing of SunOpta's expansion was "perfect," Gerhardt said.

"We knew that there was growth," he said. "We knew that there was potential. We did not know, obviously, that the potential was going to be as great as it is, and our leadership team took a calculated risk, and that risk paid off. I think we got on board at the right time, that's for sure."

At SunOpta, the oats are processed through enzymatic hydrolysis that digests the oats to form a concentrated oat base, which is then shipped to SunOpta's sister facility across town or to plants elsewhere.

The other facility then adds water and other ingredients to the base, and then packages it under different labels, one of which is SOWN Organic Oat Creamer, which the trade magazine Progressive Grocer nominated as 2021's best new product, Gerhardt said.

"Winning an award like that with a product … being made in Alexandria, there's a lot of pride in that," he said.

The expansion has also enabled SunOpta to produce up to 30 million pounds of solids annually, Gerhardt said.

"It's a bit of an engineering marvel, I'm not going to lie," he said. "Any time you build a process that gets featured on the cover of an engineering magazine you have to take pause and say, 'Well, this really is something different.'"

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Gerhardt said a big part of that success is due to the team of operators that run the process.

"I could not be more impressed with their aptitude," he said. "The one thing I see is that our team is really supporting the same initiative as the greater platform of SunOpta, that the team is constantly looking at ways to optimize, find efficiencies, and take this piece of equipment, this new expansion that can do 30 million (pounds), and how do we do 31 million with it. How do we do 32 million with it? And just keep pushing that envelope to deliver."

SunOpta has a plan to double its business over the next five years. Gerhardt said oat production has grown 100% over the past year alone.

"It's because we have the team that we do," he said. "They have a vision, and they have that sense of purpose to get us there, and nobody is shirking from that."

SunOpta has also benefited from the fact that plant-based retail sales grew 27% in 2020, nearly two times faster than total United States retail food sales.

"I think people are taking pause with what they're consuming," Gerhardt said. "In this age of information overload, we're able to do a lot more research and explore new things."

There are also a lot more options available, he said.

"When they land on something that kind of checks a lot of the boxes like oat does — it's got a very pleasing flavor, you can use it in a variety of different ways, it's great for the planet, it doesn't have a lot of water demand to grow like, say, almonds — there's a lot of favorability to oats. You're supporting the farmers, you're supporting the community, it's sustainable, and I think people are looking for that sustainability. I know SunOpta is, and I know a lot of our customers are. And when it's delicious, it's kind of a no-brainer," he said.

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Gerhardt added that as SunOpta continues to expand, its demand for workers has, as well, with openings in mechanic, supervisory and frontline operator positions.

"We need great talent," he said.

That talent — including all the various teams and employees, such as Cody Emry, who works as plant supervisor across town from the Third Avenue facility — is key, Gerhardt said.

"It's because of all those people that this Third Avenue facility has been able to see the success that it has," he said.

For more information, visit https://www.sunopta.com/.

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