Frozen french fries fuel Red River Valley economy

North Dakota State Roundup

Published July 1, 1994  | July 1994 issue

When J.R. Simplot Co. announced a $24 million potato processing plant expansion in Grand Forks earlier this year, Red River Valley potato growers welcomed the news.

Simplot will produce 80 percent more French fries than it does currently, and to meet that increased demand, valley growers may need to plant an additional 10,000 acres. In addition, the Simplot expansion, due for completion in January 1995, will create 90 new jobs, bringing total employment to about 500.

Increasingly, potato growers are putting money into irrigation to meet the quality standards set by Simplot and other potato processors. More than 90 percent of potatoes for Simplot are grown in irrigated fields, says Abe Muscari, administrative manager at Simplot's Grand Forks plant. In addition to ensuring high quality potatoes, irrigation almost doubles a crop, according to North Dakota State University research.

"And if you're guaranteed a price that will show a profit, that helps with getting support of local bankers," says Chuck Gunnerson, chairman of the Red River Valley Potato Growers Association.

Increased exports of French fries, especially to Pacific Rim countries, has expanded production at all Simplot plants, according to Fred Zerza, vice president of public relations at the company's Boise, Idaho, headquarters. While exports of French fries have quadrupled over the last 10 years, "there's greater domestic demand as well," Muscari says. Simplot produces about 1.8 billion pounds of French fries annually at its six vegetable processing plants.

About 130,000 acres in North Dakota are currently dedicated to growing potatoes, with another 70,000 acres across the river in Minnesota. And potatoes are worth about $250 million annually to the region's growers. In addition to providing potatoes for processing, the Red River Valley, the third largest potato-growing region in the country, raises seed potatoes and fresh potatoes.

Kathy Cobb