Article by Dan Lemke, Photos by Rolf Hagberg
Chad Blaser was irritated—the pea chips that he bought to feed his lambs were attracting an unwanted farm animal. The chips drew barn cats to the feed bunks not to eat, but to use as litter boxes.
“Every day when I went out, the cats had used the bunks as litterboxes,” Blaser recalled. “At first it was just frustrating having to clean out cat feces. After a while it wasn’t such a big deal because the peas clumped up really well, so it wasn’t that tough to get them out.”
After dealing with cats in the feed day after day, Blaser joked with his wife about getting rid of the sheep to pursue making litter from the peas because the farm cats liked using it so much.
Little did Blaser realize how prophetic that statement would be.
In July 2019, Blaser was diagnosed with Guillon-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune disorder in which the body’s own immune system attacks the nerves, trying to kill a perceived virus or some other phantom invader.
“It came on quick,” Blaser said. “In 48 hours, I went from being at work to being essentially paralyzed.”
Blaser spent time in the hospital and in-patient rehabilitation recovering. During that time, neighbor and childhood friend Wayne Olson, who dealt with a similar bout as a teenager and knew what Blaser was going through, frequently visited Blaser in the hospital and at his home while Blaser worked his way back to health.
Confined to a wheelchair, Blaser pondered what he could do since he was not able to return to work as a fermentation operator in Fosston. During Olson’s many visits, the two men talked about a variety of entrepreneurial ideas. One day an old thought resurfaced.
“I called Wayne and explained my cat litter idea. I knew it clumped well, but I wasn’t sure about odor control because the cats were in the barn and I hadn’t tested anything,” Blaser said.
Olson was intrigued, so he and Blaser decided to pursue the idea. They formed Poplar River Products, LLC, and got more serious about producing field pea-based cat litter.
Largely grown in northern Minnesota and the Dakotas, field peas can improve soil health and serve as livestock feed. Some pet foods also utilize field peas, while pea powder protein is an ingredient in some protein drinks and plant-based meat alternatives.
During the pea splitting process, the outer hull is peeled off and some fragmentation of the pea happens. The splits and fragments were what Blaser and Olson aimed for as they needed to reduce the particle size for their litter anyway.
Blaser said he and Olson bought some pea chips from a local pea processor and started using the pea pieces in litterboxes inside Blaser’s barn to see how cats responded. The men also did some odor control testing because they did not know how effective the pea products would serve in that function.
Results were encouraging, so Blaser and Olson bought some small equipment, purchased a tote full of peas and made litter. They took samples to the Humane Society shelter in Crookston, Minn. to see what workers and animals at the facility thought of the prototype. The pea-based litter received rave reviews as the best cat litter some staff at the shelter had ever used. Cats readily used the litter, and it did a remarkable job of removing odor.
With those favorable reviews, Blaser and Olson started working on perfecting their process. They soon realized they could use some help with testing and refining their product development and reached out to the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI).
“It took a lot more work than we thought. We narrowed the focus and that’s when we contacted AURI,” said Olson. “AURI could replicate our process, help us hone in on what we needed to do to get a product into a bag and into the market.”
AURI’s senior scientist for coproducts, Alan Doering, has worked with nearly every kind of ag processing coproduct in Minnesota. AURI worked with Blaser and Olson to test various forms of their pea-based litter to identify what type of processing and particle sizing provided the optimum level of sorbency, clumping and other desired performance qualities. AURI conducted additional testing to evaluate odor control as well as clumping capability and durability.
“Clump durability is important , as many cat owners know, the preference is to remove a clump that remains intact from the litter box rather than having it fall apart,” said Doering.
In addition to ease of handling, solid clumps help prevent the removal of excess litter.
Dust is also a concern with pet litter, so AURI scientists evaluated product formulations to assure a low level of fine dust when pouring or handling the litter. The minimal level of dust produced by the Pea Pawd litter is a positive attribute that helps differentiate it from some clay-based litters, said Doering.
“With this being pea-based, there isn’t silica dust so that is one of the selling points for us,” said Olson. “Plus it’s sustainable and renewable.”
During the research, AURI utilized a synthetic product to simulate pet urine and focused on liquid temperature to replicate real world situations. That pilot lab testing helps AURI clients decide if their product is ready for market or if it needs further refinement.
The pea-based litter controlled odor well and made a durable clump, said Doering. An added benefit to Pea Pawd is that it adds value to a renewable agriculture coproduct.
“One of the key benefits of Pea Pawd litter is the sustainability of the product because it is natural and utilizes a coproduct of field pea production,” Doering explained.
Efforts to develop the pea-based litter were supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program. The RCDG program aims to improve the economic condition of rural areas by helping individuals and businesses start, expand or improve rural cooperatives and other mutually owned businesses through cooperative development centers.
AURI has operated its Rural Cooperative Development Center since 2011, helping existing cooperatives remain vital elements of the agriculture industry while supporting their ability to grow. AURI also works with newly created cooperatives and organizations operating in a cooperative manner to launch new businesses and plan for long-term viability.
The goals of the Center are to use cooperative development as a strategy to maintain or improve economic conditions of rural areas while continuing to grow a collaborative, integrated approach of delivering cooperative development services while utilizing the appropriate expertise.
“The Pea Pawd litter project is a classic example of how the RCDG program can provide technical and business assistance to rural businesses to get those value-added products on the shelf and into the marketplace to create rural wealth,” said AURI’s Commercialization Director Michael Sparby.
Sparby added, “This wouldn’t be possible without the Minnesota Legislature’s support of AURI, as the organization is able to tap into these types of federal programs to leverage state dollars to benefit more Minnesota businesses.”
Heading to Market
With a process and product in hand, Blaser and Olson moved from the concept to the marketing stage. Pea Pawd cat litter is now on the shelves in a variety of pet and grocery stores across northern Minnesota.
“We did kind of a soft start, focusing on local stores,” said Olson. “We’re looking for distributors. We’re working with one in Minneapolis that deals with pet boutique-type stores, which is where I think this would fit the best, but we’re still seeking other distributors for the product.”
Negotiations are also taking place to get the product into stores in the Fargo area as well as making it available on Amazon.
The process of moving from concept to having litter in stores only took about nine months—a relatively short timeframe for most businesses. While Olson and Blaser have growth goals in mind, they know it is important to not get overextended.
“We wanted to crawl before we walked or ran,” said Olson, “and I think that was a good move. We started fast, but we wanted to just try it, not go full bore.”
Olson said the company has made inroads with stores in the local area and the interest in Pea Pawd is growing. However, the COVID-19 outbreak has thrown some cold water on efforts to expand distribution.
“It’s been hard this year because there are no trade shows,” Olson explained. “We have a lot of one-on-one conversations. It’s hard to get through the iron curtain that separates us from buyers. We’re not going to trade shows talking to a hundred buyers.”
“Marketing has been a challenge. We’re in a number of local stores, but once you get beyond the people you know would be receptive to putting it into their stores, you start running into roadblocks,” said Blaser. “Part of it is the coronavirus because no one is in their offices, they won’t take meetings, so that’s been a hurdle. All you can do is keep doing the legwork. We just have to be persistent.”
Olson said customer feedback on the Pea Pawd litter has been positive, which bodes well for growth and helps spur them on.
Blaser and Olson have opened a small manufacturing plant in Fosston to produce the litter and they source the field peas from a processor near Crookston. Pea Pawd is Poplar River Products’ first entry into the marketplace, but it may not be its last. Blaser and Olson have some other products in mind. They are likely to seek AURI’s assistance again to help move those concepts forward.
“We’re probably going to be adding another item. It would be great to work with AURI again to help guide us on that journey,” said Olson. “We couldn’t be happier with AURI.”
Blaser knows it will take time and effort to make Pea Pawd and any future products successful in the marketplace. He still has not been cleared to return to his off-farm job due to the Guillon-Barre Syndrome, but he and Olson are making the most of a difficult situation to pursue their entrepreneurial venture.
“If not for the illness, we probably would have never started this business. I’d have kept going to work every day and never really given it too much more thought,” said Blaser. “A lot of different things happened at the same time and all came together for us.”
Blaser and Olson are proof that inspiration and opportunity can be found even in unusual and challenging circumstances.