“Today, we get to take a victory lap,” SunOpta Alexandria Plant Manager Joe Gerhardt said Wednesday morning, Nov. 18.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in the company’s parking lot to announce an expansion to its oat base processing facility with a $26 million investment.

Gerhardt unfolded a piece of paper where he had printed out individual names of around 90 people from the company and community who made the new project possible and highlighted a theme of resolve. He said personal, team, leader and community resolve helped the company confront issues, take risks and support each other along the way.

SunOpta CEO Joe Ennen said he joined the SunOpta team last spring, and this is the “first of many big projects as we look to fuel the future of food.”

Ennen also emphasized the legacy of the Alexandria plant in the community. On one of the dryers, a SunOpta employee pointed out to him that someone had etched the year 1941 into one of the beams.

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Between the sustainability of the processes and the commitment to quality resources, Ennen said the SunOpta plant leaves a “legacy for the community, employees and planet.”

When comparing dairy to oat milk, Ennen said the production of oats takes one tenth of the land, one fifth of the water and one quarter of the carbon emissions than that of dairy production.

SunOpta, a pioneer in plant-based foods and beverages, organic ingredient sourcing and production, receives its shipments of oats from around the United States and Canada, but primarily from midwestern states.

Gerhardt said the process that occurs at the SunOpta plant to produce oat base can be related to making a bowl of oatmeal. Water is added to whole oats, particles and large lumps are stirred to create a smoother texture, the mixture is cooled down and the product is sent off to other packaging plants.

In addition to the current 66 SunOpta employees in Alexandria, this new addition will create more than 20 new jobs and quadruple oat base production, according to the company.

The expansion project was initiated in order to meet the growing national demand for oat milk. Over the past year, the oat milk market in the United States has grown more than 250% and is now the second most popular plant-based milk in the country after almond milk, according to Nielsen, a data and market measurement firm.

“It positions us as a leader in the oat milk and oat base industry,” Gerhardt said.