Kristi PihlTri-City HeraldBOARDMAN -- ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston will be able to make 300 million more pounds of french fries each year thanks to a $200 million new processing line at its Boardman potato processing plant.
Lamb Weston celebrated finishing the 192,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art ex-pansion with hundreds of employees and community members Friday.
The new processing line has been operating for about three weeks. It more than doubles the Boardman plant’s capacity, said Jon Schutte, the Boardman plant’s manager.
“This has been our best plant startup in our history,” said Greg Schlafer, Lamb Weston president.
“I am so proud of our team for making this happen,” he added.
That team has expanded because Lamb Weston hired more than 100 new workers, growing to 750 employees in Boardman with the expansion.
“We could have built and expanded in a lot of different areas,” said Paul Maass, ConAgra Foods president of commercial foods. “It was very purposeful that we built it here.”
The partnerships Lamb Weston has with growers, the Port of Morrow and other governing bodies in the area was part of the reason the Boardman plant was chosen for the expansion, Maass said.
“We need more potatoes, obviously,” he said.
Lamb Weston uses high-quality potatoes grown by farmers in the Columbia Basin of Washington and Oregon to make french fries at its Boardman plant, Schlafer said.
The Boardman plant is one of seven Lamb Weston plants in the Columbia Basin. Prior to the expansion, those seven plants processed 11 billion potatoes from Columbia Basin fields each year. That’s enough potatoes to fill 350 football fields 6 feet deep.
Lamb Weston, ConAgra Foods’ largest brand, is the largest potato processor in Washington, and one of the largest global producers. Lamb Weston, based in Kennewick, employs almost 4,500 people in the Columbia Basin.
This is the second major upgrade at the Boardman plant since Lamb Weston bought it in 2006, Schutte said. The company significantly upgraded the then-10-year-old plant just after buying it.
The receiving area of the new processing line is cavernous, with four huge red potato elevators that will allow workers to move potatoes from four trucks at a time into the plant.
The potatoes are then washed, sized and peeled. They are cut into strips, processed, frozen and then packaged. French fries from the Boardman plant are trucked out and are distributed globally.
The global demand for french fries is expanding fast enough that an expansion like Boardman’s would need to happen somewhere in the world every 18 months to fill it, Schlafer said.
While the American hunger for french fries is flat, it’s growing in emerging markets, particularly in Asia, which the Columbia Basin is poised to help fill, he said.
Lamb Weston plans to continue to invest and upgrade other processing plants, Schlafer said. In fact, the new processing line at Boardman will make that possible.
“We’ve been keeping very full, which is a good problem to have,” he said.
The new line’s capabilities creates a kind of “capacity bubble” that will allow for lengthy downtime at other plants for upgrades while still allowing Lamb Weston to make enough french fries, he said.
More than 1 million pounds of french fries can be made every day using the new Boardman processing line, Schlafer said. And about twice as many potatoes are needed to feed the machines.
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-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org