Processor looking, but not touching

Posted Jan. 07, 2009, at 8:05 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:04 a.m.

LIMESTONE, Maine — Potato processing giant Lamb Weston has no immediate plans to develop a facility in Maine, although the company continues to watch economic and agricultural activity in the state.

“We have been monitoring the opportunities for Lamb Weston’s potential in Maine for 10 years,” Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods, said Wednesday from the company’s headquarters in Omaha, Neb. “This is a routine matter of business and we are always on the lookout for quality production.”

Lamb Weston is a business division of ConAgra Foods.

Representatives of the company were in Aroostook County last fall, looking at sites on the old Loring Air Force Base, now operating as the Loring Development Authority.

Nine years ago, Lamb Weston’s interest in expanding into Maine was high enough that the company purchased an option on 150 acres at Loring.

“Lamb Weston has no presence in New England,” Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority, said. “At the time they were looking at building their market in the Northeast.”

All consideration stopped the next year when a variety of economic and cultural factors affected the food industry in general and potato consumption in particular.

“The attacks of 9-11 had a huge impact on travel and that resulted in fewer people eating french fries,” Flora said. “At the same time there was the ‘mad cow’ disease scare and the popular Dr. Atkins Diet [and] both of those meant fewer people eating potato products.”

That option expired years ago, but Flora said he has seen a renewed interest from Lamb Weston.

“They are taking a fresh look at all the variables,” Flora said.

“We were out [at the Loring Development Authority] looking at property,” Childs said. “This is something we do routinely there and elsewhere.”

Con Agra Foods’ Lamb Weston division is the largest processor of potatoes in the country.

Should Lamb Weston decide to develop a potato processing facility in northern Maine, it could only be good news for local producers, Flora said.

“It would be tremendous for the potato industry in Maine,” he said. “It would probably mean an additional 10,000 acres of potatoes to support a plant like that.”

Meeting that need, according to an official in the industry, would not be a problem and would likely represent a shift in planting practices rather than placing new acreage in production.

“It does not necessarily mean you’d see an additional 10,000 acres planted in Aroostook County,” said Don Flannery of the Maine Potato Board. “It would be more of a shift in the use of land with growers moving toward what they see having the better market use.”

While Flannery would welcome Lamb Weston to the area, he’s taking more of a wait and see attitude.

“The market will dictate when and if we will see this,” he said. “I’m not a pessimist, but I am a realist.”

In the meantime, Flora said, he will continue to do what he can to convince the company it makes sense to locate in Maine.

“They told me the time is more right at this point than in the past eight years,” Flora said. “It’s significant that after the passing of seven to eight years they continue to have some level of interest.”

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