Some say spring is the most wonderful time of the year in Washington, when apple trees blossom, tulips bloom and colorful lentils carpet the fields on the Palouse.
While the spring colors are eye-catching, it is in fall when our state reaps the benefits of our bountiful harvest.
The Washington Policy Center (WPC) recently published a report detailing agriculture’s value to our economy. It is a joint effort with the Washington Farm Bureau to bolster support for farmers, ranchers and food processors.
It is hard to succinctly summarize agriculture’s significance to Washington. Farms account for 13 percent of our state’s GDP and employ more people than Microsoft and Boeing combined. There are 160,000 Washington jobs tied to agriculture.
Agriculture accounts for $51 billion in Washington yearly economic activity. By contrast, aerospace contributed $69.5 billion in 2014, of which Boeing’s share was $55.4 billion, according to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Our state is blessed with rich soils, abundant fresh water, low-cost hydropower, a favorable climate and hard-working people. Washington farm lands grow more than 300 varieties of crops, which is second only to California in crop diversity.
Our farmers support more than 200 food processors.
The apple is still king in Washington. Two-thirds of the U.S. apples are grown here. Interestingly, WPC reports that if the number of apples picked in Washington last year were placed side-by-side, they would circle the earth 29 times. Every apple is hand-picked.
Surprisingly, while Idaho is famous for its potatoes, Washington also has a large potato crop. Between the two states, they account for 44 percent of the nation’s production. When you order fries at restaurant, you are likely to be served potatoes processed in the central part of our state.
The Washington Potato Commission reports that 99 percent of our potato farms are family businesses whose owners have deep roots in their communities.
The fastest growth sector is wine production. The number of wineries has tripled over the last decade. Washington now has 860 wineries which bottled nearly 15 million cases of wine each year.
Much of our farm production is shipped overseas. In 2014, our state exported $16 billion in food mostly to Asian countries. Interestingly, about half of the products were grown or raised here while others, particularly wheat, pass through our seaports.
That was a problem last year. The 29 west coast seaports shut down because of a labor dispute hit farmers hard. Washington’s apple growers alone lost $100 million and fresh fruits and vegetables literally rotted on docks.
Although traffic congestion was not referenced in the report, it is a big problem for farmers. Some crops like cherries, must be quickly trucked from central Washington orchards to ports for immediate shipments abroad.
Trucks move an estimated $42 million of freight on roadways in Washington State every hour of every day, yet many of them idle in traffic. The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) estimated traffic bottlenecks cost truckers $49.6 billion in 2014.
While our state has a prosperous agriculture sector, the Washington Policy Center believes farm families feel the pressure of harmful legislation and regulations.
In 2013, the agriculture community faced nearly a billion dollars tax increases from legislation introduced in Olympia. That would be on top of the estimated $230 million farmers and agriculture-related businesses pay in property taxes annually.
Finally, farmers will feel the cost impacts of the governor’s proposed greenhouse gas rules which hit fertilizer makers and food processing facilities hard.
The report’s bottom line is agriculture must be given equal priority with high-tech, software, aerospace and biomedical research when our leaders set tax, regulatory and economic policy.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.