FOSSTON, Minn. -- Those darned cats.
Chad Blaser just couldn't keep his farm kitties out of the peas.
At the time, Blaser was raising sheep near Fosston, Minn., and was giving field-pea chips to his lambs as an affordable, high-protein feed. But the resident felines weren't sheepish about using the legume-filled feed bunks as their own custom litter boxes.
Blaser was frustrated to see his feed getting ruined, but he also couldn't help but notice how the pea chips automatically encased the kitty calling cards in a hard, scoopable clump. Then he got to thinking: If his own cats were attracted to field peas for bathroom breaks, maybe that commodity could serve another purr-pose for cats across the land.
After mulling over the idea for a while, he called an old friend and neighbor, Wayne Olson. "That intrigues me," Olson replied and the two men started bouncing ideas off each other: What texture should the litter be? How would they make it? Kitties can be persnickety; how would they know for sure if all cats would like it? From there, they created Pea Pawd Litter, a completely natural, sustainable litter made of yellow field peas, milled to the consistency of cornmeal.
“It’s a legume plant. They are very efficient with nutrients. They add nitrogen back into the soil. It’s renewable and sustainable,” Olson says. “The cats could literally eat this.”
While it's unlikely that Fluffy will be trading in salmon for pea soup anytime soon, Pea Pawd does seem to be receiving "two paws' up reviews" from its cat clientele. The partners donated multiple bags to the Humane Society of Polk County at around Christmastime, after the Crookston-based organization put out a call for donations.
So far, so good. Humane Society staff reported that cats with gastrointestinal problems didn't need to have their litter changed as frequently, because Pea Pawd was so effective at odor-control. Cats who didn't normally practice good hygiene by covering up their waste started doing so, possibly because the soft litter is easier on kitty paws - even declawed ones, Olson and Blaser say.
Pea Pawd is also a healthier alternative to clay litters, which need to be strip-mined, can generate a carcinogenic silica dust and can cause intestinal blockages in some cats.
So far, their product is available in grocery stores, a hardware store and a pet-supply store in Fosston, Brainerd and towns throughout western and central Minnesota, although they would like to make it available to cat lovers in Fargo-Moorhead. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has shut down the types of trade shows that can expose a new product to multiple distributors.
“It’s been more of a one-on-one thing, which takes longer,” Olson says.
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‘Two peas in a pod’
It makes sense that Blaser and Olson would become business partners, as they've been like two peas in a pod their whole lives.
They grew up on neighboring farms and were the same age, riding the bus together and arranging meetings at their favorite culvert so they could set out on Tom Sawyerly adventures like building rafts to navigate the Poplar River.
As they grew up, they became busy with their own families and lives. But then the two men realized they had both been targeted by the same rare disease: Guillain-Barré syndrome, a serious autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system. This leads to weakness, numbness, and tingling, and can cause paralysis.
Guillain-Barré affects just one in 100,000 people, yet Olson contracted it when he was 17 and his next-door neighbor did so in his 40s.
The syndrome paralyzed Blaser, making it impossible for him to raise sheep or farm. But it also revived an old friendship, as Blaser had to look no further than his neighbor’s house to trade information and experiences about the disease.
Blaser’s health has slowly improved through immunoglobulin plasma-based treatments, but the kitty-litter project also kept him focused on a promising project at a time when he needed it.
Pea Pawd’s appeal
One of their first challenges was figuring out how to make the stuff. Through trial and error, they discovered a way to retrofit a roller mill to create a finer-ground product. They also found major support at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute in Waseca, Minn., where senior scientist Alan Doering turned out to be something of a cat litter expert.
“They were a huge, huge help,” Olson says.
Doering used diluted ammonia to test how different consistencies of the field-pea material performed in areas such as absorbency, clump strength and ammonia control. Doering says Pea Pawd is especially effective at ionic bonding, or attracting liquid to adhere to its surface.
“In the case of Pea Pawd, this created an extremely durable clump,” he says.
In an email, Doering’s enthusiasm for the product shines through: “Their efforts showcase innovation along with determination to move this idea to a reality. The end result was a high-performing and sustainable product reaching the retail level within a relatively short period of time and is an excellent illustration of the types of individuals we assist at AURI.”
Olson and Blaser don’t seem to view themselves so much as entrepreneurs as farm kids who know how to innovate and adapt. “You’re always trying to come up with something a little different, a little better, in day-to-day life,” Blaser says.
With the exception of the scientific help provided by AURI, Pea Pawd has been a largely homegrown enterprise. They’ve built a “small, little plant - nothing big” for producing the litter. The two men still make up their entire workforce. And rather than hiring out a fancy marketing firm to come up with the Pea Pawd name, Blaser turned to his Brainerd nieces, age 14 to 18. "We had four of them all brainstorming. They actually came up with the label design too."
The partners hope Pea Pawd creates just one more way in which an ag commodity can add value. “It would be like buying wheat or any commodity,” says Olson, who also grain-farms. “The more it’s used, the better it is for the farmer.”
They’ve produced about 1,000 bags of Pea Pawd to date, and are selling it for $14 to $15 for a 14-pound bag. (Find retailers at www.peapawd.com.)
Naturally, they hope Pea Pawd sprouts healthier cats, happier owners and a more sustainable planet. But they’re also glad this business venture helped bring back an old friendship.
“Things always seem to have a reason,” Blaser says. “If he hadn't gotten sick when 17 and I wouldn't have in his 40s, this wouldn't have happened.”