Lamb Weston. Pictured: Lamb Weston believes America's love affair with french fries won't be abating anytime soon.
No doubt you’ve noticed that Washington is in the grips of a gustatory frenzy, with an entire industry growing up around the desire to provide eaters and drinkers with the latest in exotic, artisanal, handcrafted, small-batch, organic food and beverages.
For sheer economic impact, though, few comestibles can top the humblest of vegetables and possibly the most popular mass-market product made from it: the potato and the french fry.
Lamb Weston, part of packaged-foods giant ConAgra Foods Inc., is adding a second french-fry production line to its existing plant in Richland. Construction is expected to be finished by autumn 2017.
Even by the standards of big agriculture, in a region that does food processing in a big way, the Lamb Weston project is no small potatoes. The $200 million-plus investment will add 128 full-time positions to a plant that already employs 500. The new line will increase annual processing capacity by more than 300 million pounds of spuds.
Potatoes don’t get quite the same attention as Washington’s other major agricultural commodities — wheat and apples — but they are a big deal nevertheless. In 2014, potatoes were a $771 million crop in Washington, placing the state second only to Idaho (which touts “Famous Potatoes” on its license plates) in the nation. The Washington State Potato Commission says Washington growers plant more than 160,000 acres annually in the Columbia Basin and the Skagit Valley, producing yields per acre that are the highest in the world — about 30 tons — and twice the national average.
Making stuff from potatoes is also a big deal in Washington. Nearly 87 percent of Washington’s potato crop gets processed as dehydrated potatoes, potato chips and frozen french fries. The commission says Washington leads the United States in frozen french fry production, accounting for 20 percent of the nation’s output. Fries are also a major contributor to Washington’s export economy: Of the french fries made in this state and shipped internationally, Japan alone purchases about 65 percent.
Growing, harvesting, transporting, storing and shipping large quantities of potatoes make for a sizable economic presence. With about 4,500 employees across the Columbia Basin, Lamb Weston operates an innovation center in Richland, it has corporate offices in Kennewick and it runs processing facilities in Connell, Pasco, Quincy and Warden, in addition to the Richland plant that’s being expanded. It sources potatoes from growers in the Columbia Basin — its purchases will increase when the new line begins operating — and it sells frozen potato products like packaged french fries under its own brand names as well as for sale by retailers under private labels.
It’s not alone, of course. Idaho-based Simplot has potato-processing plants in Moses Lake and Othello, each making an array of products, including french fries. The Canadian potato giant McCain Foods also has a french fry plant in Othello.
French fry consumption is considered a maturing market. At times in the past decade and a half, there have been reports of consumption plateauing and even declining. Still, the London-based market research firm Euromonitor International predicts a 10 percent increase — about 2.6 billion pounds — in the worldwide frozen-potato category between this year and 2020.
That projection appears to be enough to encourage ConAgra, which is spinning out Idaho-based Lamb Weston as a separate publicly held company this fall, to invest not only in the Richland expansion but also in Boardman, Oregon, where it plans to make more hash brown patties and potato puffs.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to help our customers realize their global growth projections,” says Lamb Weston President Greg Schlafer of the expansion, “but we need to make more french fries to do that.”
The Richland project will add operations, maintenance and technical staff — a mix of salaried and hourly positions — to run the line. But the economic impact goes beyond those employed at the plant, during and after construction.
For example, more food processing means more work for companies that manufacture food-processing equipment, such as Walla Walla’s Key Technology, which makes optical inspection systems, laser sorters and sizing, grading, and packaging conveyors for potato lines. While the company won’t get specific about customers and their projects, Key’s most recent quarterly earnings report mentions “a large seven-figure order received from a major potato processor.”
The Lamb Weston expansion also signals the potential of the Tri-Cities and the state as a place for large-scale food processing. Schlafer cited cooperation from Governor Jay Inslee’s office, the state Department of Commerce, the Association of Washington Business, the city of Richland and the Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC, as being key “community partners.”
TRIDEC President and CEO Carl Adrian believes the Lamb Weston announcement will certainly be heard elsewhere in the industry. While they might not care to admit to it, Adrian says, executives at other food companies see announcements like Lamb Weston’s and start asking, “If they’re there, how come we’re not?”
Potato Power The humble spud’s impact in Washington state.
160,000 | Washington acres planted in potatoes
#1 | Washington potato growers’ worldwide ranking in per-acre yield
87% | Proportion of Washington potatoes processed into french fries, potato chips and mashed potatoes
99% | Proportion of Washington potato farms that are family owned
$4.6 billion | Industry’s impact on the state economy
23,500 | Jobs supported by the Washington potato industry
8% | Proportion of potato volume that becomes a byproduct (such as starch for the paper industry or feed for the cattle industry) in a french fry plant
Shoestring Operations Companies making french fries in Washington
Lamb Weston | Plants in Connell, Pasco (2), Quincy, Richland and Warden
J.R. Simplot Co. | Plants in Moses Lake and Othello