DAWSON — There has been lots of activity at a long-shuttered processing facility in Dawson, where new equipment worth millions of dollars is being installed.

The most celebrated sign of the repurposing of the former AMPI plant happened this week: The first production technicians for the new Puris pea protein plant began training for their jobs.

The first group of production technicians have begun a five-week onboarding program at the Puris plant, plant manager Dan Rutledge told the West Central Tribune. These permanent workers will continue working in the plant as the final equipment is installed so that they have a thorough understanding of the production process as the plant moves toward commissioning and startup.

Overall, Puris is “right on track” with its hiring for the new plant, according to the general manager. He said Puris hopes to have the plant's full work force of roughly 100 people on board about two to three months before the start of production, which is slated for late summer.

“There is a lot going on,” said Rutledge of the activities at the site.

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Puris, with $75 million in backing from Cargill, purchased the 200,000-square-foot facility to serve as its flagship facility for producing plant-based protein from field peas. It will double the company’s production of protein from peas.

“This is more than a pea protein facility. This is the future of food," said Tyler Lorenzen, Puris president, when he announced the purchase of the Dawson facility in 2019.

Puris is a major supplier to Beyond Meat, one of the emerging companies providing plant-based proteins in place of meat. Puris also provides its plant-based protein for products ranging from energy bars to protein products for athletes.

The Dawson plant will use a mechanical process to separate protein, fiber and starch from peas. The peas will be shipped to Dawson from a Puris facility in Harrold, South Dakota, a small community northeast of Pierre.

Prior to recruiting workers for the Dawson facility, Puris researched the compensation packages offered in the region for skilled production workers.

“We knew we had to set ourselves up to be very competitive to bring on the best workers,” Rutledge said.

Changes to the company’s benefits and pay program have allowed it to attract candidates meeting its goals.

“We want to focus on getting people with roots in the community and (who) want to be here for a long time,” he explained.

Its recruitment efforts have been successful as well in meeting the company’s goal to employ a diverse workforce, he added.

The hiring process began nearly a month ago with a two-day event in which prospective workers were welcomed for in-person interviews. The event attracted 57 candidates. The company is continuing to find interest through its online recruiting effort.

Rutledge said most of the prospective workers have come from the Dawson, Madison and Montevideo area, or within about 20 miles of the plant. A handful of the new workers are people who once worked at the AMPI plant, and have been commuting to jobs at other processing facilities.

AMPI produced cheese sauce and other dairy products in the facility from 1982 until its closing in 2012. Bluegrass Proteins operated in a portion of the facility for part of 2014, but since then the large plant has been idle.

The interior of the facility is completely different today from what most remember it as, according to Dawson Mayor Randy Tensen. “Impressive,” said the mayor of what he saw. He was among more than 100 community members who took advantage of an open house a few weeks ago to tour the facility and see the new equipment that has been installed.

Rutledge said the work to equip the plant for operations is past the midpoint. Fortunately, much of the new equipment had been ordered prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has been arriving on schedule. He said the pandemic’s outbreak one year ago slowed some engineering work, but otherwise has not really hindered the development of the plant.

Mayor Tensen said the plant’s reopening is cause for lots of optimism in Dawson. The community is now working to address needs for more housing. He said he’s also heard already from some local employers who anticipate losing workers to the new facility.

He views the “help wanted” signs as good news for more than Dawson. “It is a big deal for the whole area, not just Dawson, the surrounding towns also,” he said.

There is excitement inside the plant as well, said Rutledge. He views the plant’s development as a one-of-a-kind opportunity to be on the forefront of an emerging industry. The global market for plant-based protein is projected to grow from today’s $4.5 billion level to as much as $8.3 billion by 2030.

He said that’s he’s already learned that this Lac qui Parle County community has a history of being in the forefront when it comes to agricultural processing.

In the 1970s, Dawson Mills was among the first in the country to begin producing a soybean isolate. It marketed frozen meat alternatives under the band name Anaprime in the early 1980s.

He said the big focus in recruiting workers is finding women and men who are safety-minded and who can engage well in a team atmosphere.

Among the new hires being sought for the Puris facility will be an analytical chemist, according to Rutledge. The goal is to conduct some research and development into new product development at the plant, he said.