Our Voice: Mid-Columbia feeding the world tons of fries

Potatoes are big business.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in Boardman, where ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston just finished a $200 million processing line at its plant.

The expansion makes use of the most current technology in 192,000 square feet of new space. The new line more than doubles the plant's capacity.

Lamb Weston added 100 employees to help operate the line, for a total of 750 employees at the Boardman plant.

They will be able to make 300 million more pounds of french fries per year.

With the potatoes it needs coming from fields here in the Columbia Basin, Boardman was a logical place for Lamb Weston to put its money.

Lamb Weston is ConAgra Foods' largest brand and processes the most potatoes of any company in Washington. With its headquarters in Kennewick, Lamb Weston is one of the region's top employers with 4,500 workers.

The seven plants in the Columbia Basin produce a serious volume of processed potatoes. The spuds that run through the plants in a single year would fill 350 football fields 6 feet deep. That's 11 billion pounds of potatoes.

While consumption of french fries is flat in the United States, global demand is driving the need for increased production. In fact, the demand worldwide is so high that expanded production like that in Boardman would need to happen every 18 months to fill the need. The Asian market is particularly keen on french fries, and the Columbia Basin is uniquely positioned to deliver products there.

At least nine out of every 10 Washington potatoes are marketed outside of the state, with a significant portion of these going to overseas markets, according to the Washington State Potato Commission. Japan alone purchases approximately 65 percent of the french fries made from Washington potatoes and exported each year.

A recent study by Washington State University shows the potato industry has a $4.6 billion economic impact and is responsible for 23,500 jobs in the state, according to the commission.

With the new plant capacity at Boardman, Lamb Weston will be able to give some of its other facilities a break to allow for upgrades while still meeting the market demand. In Boardman alone, 1 million pounds of fries per day can be produced. It takes about twice that many pounds of potatoes.

When you see those diggers running this summer in the fields surrounding us, remember that those potatoes could likely become french fries eaten in Japan.

That helps put some perspective on potatoes and the global economic reach of our Mid-Columbia farmers who are helping to feed the world.