Gleaming equipment, pristine surfaces and the rumble of machinery are initial impressions of the new Cavendish Farms potato processing plant that officially opened Oct. 3 in Lethbridge.
The $430 million plant sits on 80 acres in the city’s northeast industrial park and covers 346,000 sq. feet. It is the length of seven football fields and constitutes the largest private investment in Lethbridge city history.
Cavendish Farms president Robert K. Irving was there to cut the ribbon to symbolize the start of the project. Although the first crate of frozen french fries was produced July 31, the plant is now moving toward full capacity.
“We are thrilled with our investment and we are proud to grow right here in Alberta,” said Irving.
Cavendish head office is in New Brunswick and it has three other potato processing plants: two in Prince Edward Island and one in Jamestown, North Dakota.
The Lethbridge plant is the largest of those, built over a three-year period. It will require 735 million pounds of potatoes annually, which means Cavendish will contract 16,500 acres from regional growers. That is 12,000 more acres that it used to contract in the region.
That pleases Greg Nakamura of Nakamura Farms, which has been growing potatoes in southern Alberta for 45 years.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity for the growers of Alberta to expand and also show the rest of the country that we are one of the best potato-growing areas in North America,” he said during grand opening festivities.
“We’ve always had a good reputation but I think we can really prove it now. That’s what’s bringing these plants to Alberta.… We probably are second to none in quality.”
Nakamura said the increased number of acres available for contract will give young growers the opportunity to get into the business and older growers the chance to expand their operations.
Irving said the support and enthusiasm of growers, combined with the high quality of product, were key to the company’s decision to expand.
“Lethbridge, right from day one … when we purchased our original plant back in 2013, we felt very welcome. We were very surprised and really appreciative of the quality of potatoes. The quality of potatoes we believe is some of the best here in North America.
“We made this investment knowing that the growers would make the investment to grow more acres for us. They came forward and have made a serious commitment to us about supplying quality potatoes so we know we’ll have potatoes for our plant here.”
Cavendish supplies french fries and other potato products to Canadian customers, as well as those in the United States, Mexico, China, Japan, Thailand and Singapore, said Irving.
The company has owned a plant in Lethbridge since 2013, when it bought the former Maple Leaf Foods processing facility. Irving said that plant would be decommissioned now that the new facility is running.
The new plant employs 238 people full time, which is 62 more than it employed at its former plant. During construction, more than 900 workers were on site daily during peak periods and more than two million person hours were required for the build.
Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman said he is delighted with the new plant and what it represents for the city.
“It’s very fascinating to see what $430million will buy you,” he said after completing a tour. “It’s incredibly huge.”
Spearman said an agricultural base is key to the city’s economy, one on which it will continue to build. He expressed appreciation for Cavendish’s “deliberate efforts” to hire local contractors and employ skilled trades from southern Alberta.
As for the base product, “it’s a testament to the high quality of southern Alberta potatoes as well as the fine people in our regional farming communities who grow them.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was on hand for the grand opening, pronouncing it “a great day for Alberta, a great day for Lethbridge and a great day for agriculture.
“It is through projects like this that we can help our farmers to feed the world and we are proud of what Alberta’s ag producers do every day at the highest standards to produce food for the world and to do so with a shrinking environmental footprint.”
Irving said the plant was built with expansion in mind. So far it has used about 80 acres of the 288-acre site in Lethbridge.