HERMISTON - Zeno Marvin scooped up a gloved handful of freshly fried potato chips from the production line and distributed them.

The small group of educators surrounding him at the Snack Alliance Inc. plant sampled one or two and nodded approval amid the cacophony of industrial sounds.

Marvin, plant manager for the company owned by Nalley's Canada Ltd., spent part of Tuesday guiding teachers from throughout the state around the snack-making plant. The eight, accompanied by two instructors from the Union Experiment Station, are involved in a week-long Summer Agriculture Institute. It's intended to educate teachers about farming and farm products.

Most of Tuesday afternoon's lesson was about potatoes. Marvin said his plant went through about 80 million pounds of potatoes last year and produces about 25 different flavors of potato chips.

Most consumers would be hard-pressed to count up 25 different varieties of chips, but not if they consider different brands, many of which contain original flavors and other ingredients per the customer's order. Snack Alliance makes and packages chips for Wal-Mart, Albertsons, WinCo, Fred Meyer and other retailers not common in the Northwest.

"We are the largest private label manufacturer of snack foods in the West," Marvin said.

Snack Alliance has been in business for 11 years in Hermiston, situated in a former hash brown plant along Highway 207 just south of Bud-Rich Potato Inc. Its production has grown five times from that first year, Marvin said, when the plant consumed just 3 or 4 million pounds of potatoes.

These spuds are special, he said. The plant uses only "white rounds," potatoes that are more spherical than most potatoes sold at retail. The plant contracts with growers to produce the potatoes specifically for chips. The average price is about $8 per hundredweight, or $160 per ton.

Potatoes are 80 to 85 percent water, Marvin said, but after they are peeled in an abrasive tub, sliced to one-sixteenth of an inch and fried in cottonseed oil at 320 degrees for 21/2 minutes, they come out golden with about 1 percent moisture.

"Precision frying" to maintain that crispness is important, he stressed.

"You don't want to put a bunch of brown ones in the bag," he said.

Chips shuffle from the deep fryer to the flavoring line, where equipment sprinkles on powdered seasonings as the chips tumble in a bin that resembles a cement mixer. After receiving a thorough coating, the chips spill out for packaging.

The company has half a dozen bagging lines that package products in sizes ranging from giant to individual servings. All bag stock comes on pre-printed rolls about a foot in diameter that are laid out, filled and heat-sealed as each portion is weighed. A cushion of air fills each bag to protect the crispy chips during shipping and unpacking.

"I'm shipping all the way to Texas, and I have a large customer in Mexico I'm shipping to," Marvin said.

That's just for the North American market. In addition, he exports snack foods by the containerload to Asia.

Dave Paumier, a sixth-grade teacher at North Marion Middle School in Aurora, said Marvin was a great ambassador.

"The plant manager was so knowledgeable and passionate," he said. "It was great to see the end product of potatoes."

Gordon Andrews a substitute teacher from Burns, said he enjoyed touching the equipment and the wet product.

"The manager's explanation made the processing very clear and easy to vision," he said. "We learned how to compare products, chip by chip."

Much of the production process is automated, but packaging is the most labor-intensive process. The plant employs 110 at capacity on two shifts. It has operated around the clock at times.

"I almost can't get help this time of year," Marvin told the teachers. "Labor is very, very tight."

Besides frying potato chips, Snack Alliance uses 1,000-pound totes of corn meal to produce extruded corn products, such as cheese puffs or crunchier cheese-flavored corn products that are fried. That line wasn't operating Tuesday.

Paumier said he's glad he signed on for the week-long workshop.

"Everyday, when I call my wife and she asks me if it is worth being gone from home for a week, I say, 'absolutely.' This experience has opened my eyes to this region," he said. "I will be able to incorporate many ideas, experiences and information in my classroom."

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