Our Voice: ConAgra investment highlights the value of our potato industry

The potato does not get the respect it deserves.

Most folks think of a neighboring state, which shall remain nameless, when they think of potatoes. Few people recognize that Washington is the No. 2 potato-producing state in the nation and that we produce a superior spud.

Don’t believe us when we say potatoes are a big deal? How about this: Washington’s potato industry supports 36,000 jobs and $7.5 billion in spending each year.

And while most of the fawning in our region regarding jobs and economic impact goes to Hanford cleanup, the potato industry continues to diversify our economy with mega-investments in processing, shipping and packing facilities, making us a hub for all manner of produce processing operations.

The humble potato is really a rock star, a vegetable that feeds people worldwide in a wallet-friendly way and in an array of forms, from fresh packed spuds to frozen french fries.

And it is the fry that is bringing the largest capital investment by a single business to the Tri-Cities this year.

ConAgra Foods Inc., the parent company of Lamb Weston, recently announced it will expand its business in Richland with the addition of a second french fry processing line at its Richland campus. That’s a $200 million investment in Richland, the same town most commonly disassociated with the ag industry and most known for things of the nuclear variety.

But our state’s reputation is changing as the demand for potatoes continues to drive industry here. Washington state has 170,000 acres of spuds in production this year. Irrigation and weather conditions make for a superior potato production environment in the Columbia Basin. And businesses have taken notice.

Lamb Weston has had a long presence in the region, but it has stepped up its investments in recent years. The existing Richland plant opened in 1972 and employs 500. The new Richland line will add 128 jobs. In 2014, it invested $200 million in Boardman for a french fry processing line and earlier this year Lamb Weston announced a $30 million expansion there that will add another 50 jobs.

These are big numbers and real jobs with real impacts on our region’s families. Global demand for french fries made from Washington spuds is driving the demand. Last year Preferred Freezer Services opened the world’s largest freezer in Richland, creating an ideal location for Lamb Weston and other processors to store their product. Preferred Freezer offers its clients shipping by rail or truck with products going to domestic and international locations.

Potatoes are such a big deal that the giant ConAgra, with a portfolio that includes Slim Jim’s and Chef Boyardee, plans to spin Lamb Weston off as an independent, publicly-traded company. In 2015, Lamb Weston earned the company $2.9 billion and accounted for much of its commercial foods segment’s fiscal operating profit of about $570 million.

Lamb Weston’s website has a cool feature called Trace My Fries, where the Columbia River Basin gets a shout-out as one of five regions in North America that has the ideal combination of soil and climate to produce perfect potatoes.

You’ll even find profiles of some of our neighbors in the Meet the Farmers section.

So all hail the potato and those in Washington who grow, process and sell them to a worldwide market. Lamb Weston plays a big role in that with its significant operations in our region. In turn, that makes our community stronger through the thousands of jobs it provides, the growers who supply its potatoes and the money spent in our community as a result.

Read more here: http://www.tri-cityherald.com/opinion/editorials/article84679762.html#storylink=cpy

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