Whether crispy, greasy, salty, spicy or curly, that french fry you crave likely had its tasty start in the Columbia Basin.
Potatoes grown in the rich soil of Mid-Columbia farms are trucked from fields to one of seven ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston’s plants.
The spuds feed into the plants on conveyer belts where topsoil is removed and the potatoes are sized to decide what fry they should become, or if they should be hash browns, tater tots or other potato products.
“Every potato delivered to this facility has an end use,” said John Blair, operations manager for the Richland and Pasco Lamb Weston plants.
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Each year, 11 billion potatoes from Columbia Basin fields head to the seven Lamb Weston plants in Warden, Connell, Pasco, Richland, Quincy, Boardman and Hermiston.
That’s enough potatoes to fill 350 football fields 6 feet deep.
To process all of them, Lamb Weston employs about 4,300 people in full-time, year-round jobs, Blair said.
“The Columbia Basin region is the prime growing region in the world for growing potatoes,” Blair said, noting the Columbia Basin has the highest concentration of Lamb Weston’s 20 plants worldwide.
The region’s temperature, soil and available water make it a good place to grow spuds, he said.
Nationwide, Washington grows the second-largest volume of potatoes, accounting for about 21 percent of total U.S. production, according to the Washington State Potato Commission. Idaho grows the most at about 28 percent.
But Washington farmers grow more potatoes per acre than anywhere in the world. The national average is about 397 sacks per acre, but Washington farms get an average of 615 of the 100-pound sacks, and some fields can get more than 1,000.
About 87 percent of Washington’s crop is sold to processors, said Ryan Holterhoff, the Washington State Potato Commission’s director of marketing and industry affairs.
“Processors are able to transform Washington potatoes into golden fries, crunchy chips and creamy mashed potatoes that the world can enjoy,” he said.
Potatoes are Washington’s third most valuable crop, behind apples and wheat.
The potato industry generates $4.6 billion for the state economy and creates 23,500 jobs, according to the commission.
Lamb Weston, ConAgra Foods’ largest brand, is the largest potato processor in Washington, and one of the largest global producers. But there are many other processors and fresh packers in the region, such as Twin City Foods, Baker Produce, Agri-Pack and Balcom & Moe.
The season’s first potatoes usually come out of the ground in July. By September, potato harvest is just starting to hit its full swing, Holterhoff said.
Lamb Weston’s Richland plant runs 24/7 to keep up with the demand for processed potato products.
The plants run year-round, typically with 13 days on, and then a day off for maintenance and cleanup, Blair said.
Blair said part of the reason Lamb Weston can operate all year is because the company has perfected the science of storing potatoes using both cool temperature and humidity, Blair said.
“We are putting the potatoes to sleep,” he said.
From July through October, potatoes are brought right from the field and processed, he said. In September, the company begins storing potatoes. Those potatoes are what will be processed from November until July, when the next fresh crop is available.
The company contracts with growers to provide enough potatoes to meet customer demands.
What those potatoes become depends on their size, shape and color.
To get a potato into a french fry, the potato is cut, cooked, frozen and ultimately packaged, he said. They go through what Blair calls “state of the art manufacturing facilities.”
The result is a variety of different fries, from steak fries to shoe-string and waffle-cut fries.
Each plant produces a variety of products, Blair said. Richland does french fries, hash browns and mashed potatoes. Other plants also process vegetables and make appetizers.
Investments are made each year with the goal of continuing to create a quality product while increasing efficiencies, Blair said.
“We continually look for innovative ways to improve our products,” he said.
Part of that is advancements in technology.
Richland, Boardman and Quincy are three of the company’s four Energy Star-rated plants in the United States. The fourth is in Minnesota.
And some of that means developing new varieties of potatoes, Blair said.
The company’s fries can be eaten at many restaurants, and in a number of brands available at the grocery store. Alexia is Lamb Weston’s premium retail brand.
Lamb Weston’s fries are available in 100 countries.