Putting the deep freeze on sweet potatoes just may enliven the fresh sweet potato category, shippers said.

Sweet potatoes from all over the U.S. will be bound for little Delhi, La., now that ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston is building what is being described as the first large-scale sweet potato processing facility in the world.

While the facility is intended to make frozen sweet potato products, growers throughout the South are looking at the facility as a boon that should increase demand for sweet potatoes across the board, likely raising prices for both fresh and processed sweet potatoes.

Because of proximity, Louisiana sweet potato shippers will likely benefit the most, said Roy Hansen, sales manager of Dawson Farms LLC, Delhi.

“This is a huge impact for the industry,” Hansen said. “It’s adding 500 jobs to the area. They’ll be procuring product not just from us but from others in the state.”

“To build a plant like that, you have to keep it running 12 months of the year,” he added.

The new facility, which is being built at a cost of $210 million, bodes well for the sweet potato industry in Louisiana, said Wayne Garber, partner in Garber Farms Inc., Iota, La.

“We have a transportation advantage in getting to them, so you’d think Louisiana shippers will be the first choice. It should encourage our growers to increase their acreage, once they see that demand will be strong and steady,” Garber said.

“If it’s successful, it may make the industry more profitable. Once that happens, lending institutions will look on the industry more favorable, all of which will promote growth,” he said.

Tara Smith, sweet potato specialist/research coordinator at Louisiana State University’s AgCenter, agreed.

“I think it will grow the industry,” Smith said. “From what I hear from brokers, if we can grow the potatoes, they can sell them.”

Having a large outlet for processing will keep supply pressure off the fresh market, she added.

The project will be completed in two phases, with the first done sometime in late 2010, according to news reports. It should be finally completed in 2014.

The plant is being built to standards for environmentally sustainable construction, and will be registered with the U.S. Green Building Council.

ConAgra frozen sweet potato plant has implications for fresh industry