Fertile ag area fuels food processing industry

By Arielle Dreher

The Columbia Basin’s rich agricultural resources are well known at local dining room tables and restaurants. The confluence of the Yakima, Snake and Columbia rivers in the region, good soil for growing crops and a long growing season provide not just food resources but also fuel economic growth, jobs and sustainability for the local economy through the food processing industry.

The Columbia Basin is a major producer of crops, as well as processed food, that is consumed nationwide and around the world.

The Tri-City Development Council works to keep and attract businesses to the region, especially food processors because, as CEO and president Carl Adrian said, the economic impact of the sector is incredibly important.

“Agriculture and food processing is actually the largest employment sector (in the Tri-City region), with everything from planting to processing, it really makes up the largest employment sector in the economy,” Adrian said.

Three major food processors are on TRIDEC’s list of the region’s top employers, based on number of employees: Lamb Weston, Tyson Foods and Broetje Orchards. Lamb Weston employs about 3,400 employees, Tyson Foods 1,400 and Broetje Orchards 1,200 in the Tri-City region, according to TRIDEC data.

Part of what makes the Columbia Basin attractive for food processors is the availability of fresh product, which during harvest season, can go right to the processing plant the same day. It also has driven packaging and food storage companies to locate or expand operations in the region.

Adrian said the region’s manufacturing sector has seen job growth, noting that wineries also are a part of the processing category. Besides storage, food processing requires transportation, including rail and trucking, options both available in the Tri-Cities.

“Food processing is producing something and exporting it outside the community … and capital comes back into the community in the form of wages and profits and that then fuels the service sector of the economy,” Adrian said.

The most recent expansion of a major food processor in the Tri-City area is Lamb Weston, a well-known international frozen potato product company, and known locally for free fry day; this year it’s July 13.

A $250 million french fry processing line began operations in May in Hermiston.

In 2017, Lamb Weston completed an expansion of its Richland operations plant, adding 150 local jobs. With the addition of another processing line, capacity is now at 600 million pounds of frozen french fries annually.

Lamb Weston added another production line to the nearly 50-year-old plant in Hermiston. The new line is for more frozen french fry products to be made and largely shipped overseas.

“Currently Lamb Weston is the leading producer of french fries in North America, with a lot of expansion and growth outside of North America,” said Carol Samoray, Lamb Weston vertical start-up manager. “So the work that’s being done in Hermiston, with the expansion, is to support a lot of that international ambition and growth that we see in the marketplace today.”

The new 300,000-square-foot facility was built by about 700 people at peak construction times, with primarily local contractors in 2018 and 2019, said Brian Jackson, engineering manager and expansion project lead.

“We receive raw potatoes; we unload trucks; we process the potatoes, freeze them, package them and ship them from this site, that’s basically what this new line does,” Jackson said.

With the new line fully operational, the Hermiston plant will produce more than 700 million pounds of potato products annually — more than even the Richland plant.

Crews broke ground on the new Lamb Weston facility in Hermiston in February, and the majority of labor construction for the project was from local contractors in the Hermiston, Pendleton and Tri-Cities area. (Courtesy Courtesy Lamb Weston)

Samoray said the expansion of the Hermiston plant allowed the company to hire about 150 more positions. Lamb Weston’s Columbia Basin operations source from local farmers, and it’s not uncommon during harvest times for a potato to be harvested and onto the line in the same day. With storage and freezing technologies, however, Lamb Weston makes its products year-round.

“It is our goal that you could sit down at any restaurant supplied by Lamb Weston and that you would not be able to tell the difference between product made from material pulled right out of the field and processed and product that has been in storage for six to nine months,” Samoray said, noting that Lamb Weston owns storage facilities of its own, as well as uses grower-owned storage facilities throughout the Columbia Basin.

Statewide, food manufacturing is not a huge economic driver, but one look at the break-down of statistics by region, shows that food manufacturing is projected to continue to grow in Benton and Franklin counties in the coming years.

Food manufacturing accounts for 5,528 jobs in the two counties in 2017, with an average annual wage at $44,005.

Ajsa Suljic, a regional labor economist at the Washington State Employment Security Department, said the Columbia Basin’s location, rich growing environment and climate make the region ideal for not just farmers and growers but also food processors. She also pointed out that the region’s transportation networks enable large companies to get their products out to customers quickly.

TRIDEC receives leads from a consultant about food processing companies looking to expand. Adrian believes the sector has more room to grow.

“We’re seeing new crops being planted. We’re seeing a lot of blueberries, for example, that weren’t grown here years ago, and we’re seeing more berry plantings and that kind of thing,” he said.

One advantage of food processors being near a large quantity of fresh product is the ability to tailor to their customers’ specific needs.

“(Food processors) customize products for whatever the customer needs,” Suljic said. “… They are not equally producing it the same for everybody, it’s for what the customer wants.”

Beyond an abundance of crops and the production of new crops, Adrian also believes that as the food processing industry develops new technology for storage and preservation, that the crop yields could be higher, leading to further processing, where raw product is used in more convenience or ready-to-eat foods, Adrian said.

Of course, growth rarely comes without some pain. At a local level, this could mean potential infrastructure headaches and tension between enticing and creating environments for food processors to expand and grow where they are, while ensuring that residents’ quality of life and job opportunities remain.

Take the city of Pasco, for example. Last fall, the city broke ground on a multimillion-dollar water pump station that eventually will serve more food processors than it does currently, treating their wastewater outside the city’s sewer system. The city currently has a public-private partnership that diverts food processors’ wastewater into an irrigation system on 15 crop circles on the edges of the city’s limits. The current water reuse facility treats five food processors’ waste water, and the new pump station and pipes will improve the connection to Simplot RDO and Freeze Pack, and add Grimmway Farms to the program.

On May 21, the Franklin County Commission voted to put $500,000 toward the project, for the second time in recent years. Some commissioners expressed concerns that the project needed to mitigate treatment plant odors for residents. Pasco Public Works Director Steve Worley said he was happy to prioritize the funding to work on the solid waste removal process to focus on odor.

TRIDEC commissioned a survey of 71 food and beverage processors in the Tri-Cities region in 2014 and found that 67 percent said their sales were increasing, with 6 percent citing a decrease. Additionally, the food and beverage processing industry, based on TRIDEC’s survey, started in the region in the 1990s.

State economic data shows that by 2021, food manufacturing in Benton and Franklin counties will increase by 1.23 percent.

Suljic said that this can be attributed to several factors.

“It’s extensions of companies here, new companies locating here to be closer to their supply. It’s producers as well as just in general the work flow for what consumers need as they demand more products,” she said.

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