Spokane Seed Company: Using Modern Means to Promote Wholesome Agriculture

Integrity and quality are at the heart of the Spokane Seed Company (SSC). For over a century SSC has been sourcing and processing some of the finest whole and split dried green and yellow peas, green and red lentils and garbanzo beans from its headquarters in Spokane, Wash. Currently, the company maintains a processing facility in Spokane and a second plant in Colfax, Wash., with receiving facilities peppered across the Palouse region of the Pacific Northwest, which continues to be one of the prime districts for wheat and legume production. Today, the SSC name carries a reputation for healthy, hearty American staples.
 
SSC maintains the standards associated with its name by sticking to splitting processing methods that produce higher quality every time. Many newer processers will run the dry peas through a dry-split process. “We insist on our method because it produces a much more appealing product,” asserts P. Johnstone, president and CEO of SSC. The company uses a more delicate process where the peas are tempered and allowed to cool. The peas are then naturally split to demonstrate their natural cleavage yielding a smoother, more consistent quality split pea.
 
SSC held true to its trusted processing methods even as alternative processing methods surfaced as production areas increased. This doesn’t mean certain facets of the process don’t take advantage of some advance techniques, however. For example, all SSC finished products passes through state of the art food safety measure prior to final packaging, to assure no unwanted objects pass beyond safety barriers. Today the company continues to distribute its uniformly processed products to both major American food companies, as well as many international markets, under its popular RUMBA BRAND. The company has been one of Campbell’s Prestigious Select Suppliers since 1989 and also supplies products to additional large scale food companies, such as General Mills, HJ Heinz, Gerber, Unilever, DelMonte and others.
 
A Ccommitment to Quality
 
A consistent leader over the course of four generations of family ownership, SSC has seen a major expansion in the popularity of peas, lentils and chickpeas, resulting in an explosive growth in cultivation in Canada and even in the Midwest. In turn, SSC solidified its place in the international and domestic market as a strategically located, preferred partner by playing to its strengths in food safety and food defense. The company not only focused on promoting the health benefits of its products, but also emphasized its commitment of “quality begins at origination” to provide the highest quality standard available with an ongoing food safety-food defense pledge to its customers. “Campbell’s was our first client to express interest in developing a food safety program, and we jumped at the opportunity,” says Johnstone.
 
SSC sees the food safety issue as extremely consumer-driven and not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. 2007 is commonly referred to as “The Year of the Recall,” with recalls issued for beef, fresh produce, peanut butter, pet food and even toothpaste, and 2011 has presented its own set of outbreaks. In turn, SSC has always had an open-door policy where clients, inspection agencies and employees are welcome to tour facilities, review documentation and make suggestions for improvements. This is not a program with a finish line. All it takes is a commitment from the general manager to the custodian and a good relationship with your banker to develop a great food safety approach.
 
Already, SSC is looking at expanding its business model to take food safety into the fields and solidify its supply arrangements in the process. “We’re very dependent on our farmers. If they opt to grow something else one year, it has a direct effect on our volume,” says Johnstone. “We’re also looking for a way to partner our contracts with farmers who have their own farm-based food safety systems. We’re looking for a business relationship with producers who either have their own existing food safety programs or are receptive to the idea. It is a difficult concept to sell at that level, but some more progressive individuals have agreed to listen and cooperate at some level.”
 
Modern Products for Timeless Health Benefits
 
Especially in the wake of the economic recession, SSC’s products have secured their place on the American plate. Though not recession-proof, peas, lentils and chickpeas are recession tolerant according to Johnstone. “The new consumer looks for affordable, nutritious, healthy products, and because of their protein content and shelf stability our crops are pretty hard to beat,” he says. “They also happen to be items that combat everything from obesity to high cholesterol, cancer to diabetes.” In turn, Johnstone is guiding SSC to partner with other industry leaders and organizations to send a message nationally about the health benefits of its products, especially as an alternative source of protein.
 
Simultaneously, SSC will focus on promoting newly developed products that fit within its ideals of health and affordability. Industry research efforts have developed alternative uses for peas, lentils and chickpeas, and “we have uses for such products as protein, fiber and starch in baking snack food and even in protein drink applications,” says Johnstone. Over the summer Johnstone attended a demonstration for culinary professionals at the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus. Simply put, alternative and affordable vegetable protein sources are great and are in increasing demand across the globe.
 
In coming years SSC will continue to produce the highest quality chickpeas, lentils and peas for domestic and international markets, while focusing on the company’s future. Johnstone’s own father took over SSC from his grandfather before passing the company on. And a plan is in place to maintain the company’s lineage and legacy. “My nephew, Andrew Fontaine, has been head of our marketing department for some time now, as well as a director of the company. We want to stay a family business,” asserts Johnstone.
 
For all his plans to pass the company onto future generations and increasingly modernized procedures, Johnstone can’t help but keep certain time-honored traditions active. SSC just happens to be one of the last producers to offer 100 pound bags made of real jute, which are only available under the RUMBA BRAND that is distributed internationally. Even though the price of jute has skyrocketed over many decades, Johnstone sees the production of this fiber as integral to company’s identity. “I started working in our warehouse at the age of 16 and I can’t forget the smell,” he says. More importantly, jute packaging under the RUMBA BRAND has become synonymous with an unwavering commitment to quality, which is something that will always be integral to the ongoing operations of the Spokane Seed Company.