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Delhi plant off to sweet start

March 25, 2010

Delhi plant off to sweet start

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From the March 25, 2010 Market Bulletin

By Sam Irwin

The new ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston sweet potato processing plant near Delhi, Richland Parish, is under construction and should be online in time for the 2010 sweet potato harvest, said Plant Manager Doug Beyer.
Beyer hosted area sweet potato farmers, state and Delhi city officials and media on “hard-hat” toursof the facility on March 10 and 11. The visitors were ferried from the Delhi Civic Center to the construction site via van and driven around the industrial plant site located off the I-20 Dunn exit.
“It’s a very large plant,” Beyer said. “It’s meant to operate 24 hours a day.”
Visitors saw numerous cranes erecting large concrete walls for the main plant. Beyer added that the wastewater digester unit is nearly complete.
The digester will employ a methane-gathering system while recycling much of the high volume of water used by the facility. The recycled bio-gas will be blended with natural gas to heat the plant.

Beyer stressed that plant construction and operation will meet the gold standard of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for environmentally sustainable construction, which includes the use of recycled building materials as well as recyclable disposable construction materials.

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          Doug Beyer (above)

Beyer said seven years of buying sweet potatoes from Louisiana growers and shipping them to Washington for processing has proven that the sweet potato French fry market is expanding.
Several area sweet potato farmers attended the March 11 hard-hat tour.
Ken and Robin Thornhill of Thornhill Farms in Wisner, were very encouraged by the possibility of a new market for their sweet potatoes. The Thornhills farm about 800 acres of sweet potatoes.
“If we can improve our yields, and I think we can, this will be a new market for us,” Ken Thornhill said. “Typically, we grow for the fresh market and the fresh market doesn’t readily take a jumbo oversized sweet potato. This plant will be just the opposite. They will take the jumbos.
“There have been years when I’ve dumped as many as 50,000 bushels of jumbo sweet potatoes because we had no market but this plant means the rules have changed. It also gives sweet potato farmers a shot in the arm as far as borrowing power at the bank.”
Thornhill said one possible way to increase yield would be to extend the sweet potato growing season, resulting in larger potatoes.
Artie Boutwell and Ricky Holland of Oak Grove Produce in Oak Grove were also encouraged by the new market the Delhi plant will create.
“It’s going to be a learning process,” Boutwell said. “It will be some different growing techniques to learn, but the new plant will be a plus for us.”
Boutwell said the new market might ease the pain of wet years when sweet potatoes rot in the field because of wet, soggy conditions.
“That can be very disheartening as well as costly,” he said.
Arkansas sweet potato farmer Ted McDermott and Oklahoma Irish potato farmer Gary Chapman also took the tour.
McDermott said he would probably do business with the Delhi plant but Chapman said he is still researching the possibility of growing sweet potatoes.
Beyer said the sweet potato plant was expected to employ 275 workers and that job fairs will be conducted in the upcoming weeks.
Job fairs are scheduled for March 29 in Delhi, March 30 in Tallulah, March 31 in Monroe, April 1 in Winnsboro and April 2 in Rayville.
The positions vary from general laborers, technicians, equipment operators and skilled trades personnel. The positions are full-time, year-round jobs.
ConAgra officials expect the plant’s work force to expand to 500 as the plant grows.
In the 2009 crop year, 85 Louisiana producers grew 3.9 million bushels of sweet potatoes in 14 parishes. The total gross farm value of the Louisiana crop was $85 million.
Louisiana currently ranks third nationally in sweet potato production.
For more information, visit the ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston Web site at www.lambweston.com/Delhi/employment.jsp. Enter Delhi, LA, in the keyword search box.
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