Production started in September at the new ConAgra Foods Inc. Lamb Weston frozen sweet potato processing plant near Delhi, La.

Marketers of fresh sweet potatoes say the $210 million processing plant in the northeastern corner of the state provides a healthy boost to the fresh product.

“It will be positive because it will put sweet potatoes in front of everybody,” said George Wooten, owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.

“From the fresh market side, it puts us in strong competition for the raw product.”

Wooten said that processing is still miniscule compared to fresh-market sales of sweet potatoes. But he also said the new ConAgra plant and others like it could change the equation.

“Their category is much, much smaller than ours is at this point, but using the right markets and everything, their market can actually overtake the fresh market in volume in a couple of years,” Wooten said.

“We’re slipping in our consumption. The category is growing, but not like we like to see it.”

The new plant brought about 275 jobs to the area, according to the U.S. Sweet Potato Council in Columbia, S.C. Other reports have suggested the plant eventually could employ as many as 500 workers, which would make ConAgra the largest private employer in Richland Parish.

Henry Chancy, owner of Millstream Farms in Dunn, N.C., said the new plant will help keep product flowing, which is good for everybody.

“It could impact, because they will require a lot of potatoes,” he said.

“In order to meet the demand for their processing, they’ll need more fresh potatoes.”

It also provides an extra destination for sweet potatoes that might otherwise go to waste, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C.

“It’s going to help the people that have inferior quality, with insect damage or misshaped sweet potatoes,” Precythe said.

“It’s a good thing. Indirectly it will definitely help the fresh market.”

The plant processes more than 20 frozen sweet potato items, according to the U.S. Sweet Potato Council

Louisiana put up $37 million in incentives to land the deal from Nebraska-based ConAgra, the council said.