The numbers are impressive.
Washington state has nearly 40,000 farms that produce some 300 agricultural commodities, including national leaders such as apples, sweet cherries and pears. More than 700 licensed wineries line the countryside, making the state the second-largest wine producer in the country. Washington's $40 billion food and agriculture industry employs approximately 160,000 people and contributes 12 percent to the Evergreen State's economy.
But to get a true understanding of how farming affects the economy, one needs to look beyond the numbers and consider the quality behind those figures, says Dan Newhouse, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
“Agriculture is a major engine for economic growth in our state,” says Newhouse, who farms 600 acres in Yakima County. “We produce $8 billion in crops and livestock, and more than one-third of our ag products are destined for foreign markets. Exports are booming because we grow the quality the world demands.”
The state’s food industry is also booming with products shipped throughout the United States. Many factors are behind the success, seen both domestically and internationally. The state is blessed with low energy costs, an abundance of water resources and top-notch transportation infrastructure.
The port system on Puget Sound and the Columbia River is among the best in the United States. Railex, a freight rail carrier that provides nonstop, coast-to-coast delivery of Washington goods to the East Coast, has a refrigerated, mega-trans-load distribution center in Wallula. And in Rosalia, construction is under way on a new, $17 million grain-handling facility scheduled to open in 2013.
“Transportation infrastructure is essential,” Newhouse says.
Of course, when one thinks of crops from Washington, apples come to mind. The state’s apple industry accounts for 60 percent of U.S. production, with a value of $1.44 billion.
An increasing slice from that industry comes from the relatively young Cashmere-based company Crunch Pak, which in 2001 introduced a method to treat apples so they would maintain their freshness after slicing. The company is now the world’s leading supplier of fresh sliced apples.
“We’ll go through over a million pounds a week of apples,” says Tony Freytag, the company’s senior vice president for sales and marketing, and one of its founders. “On a national basis for all sliced apples (including those sold through fast-food chains), the total value is probably close to $500 million. That’s almost half a billion dollars that didn’t exist 10 years ago.”
Crunch Pak has evolved from that first sliced apple to include several variations of product and packaging. The company also offers party trays, apples and carrots packaged with dipping sauces, and multipacks. “Product development is very, very important,” Freytag says.
Milk and More
Dairy foods make up the second-largest agricultural commodity produced in Washington, with a direct economic impact valued at $948 million. Darigold of Seattle is largely responsible for that.
“As the largest dairy processor/cooperative in the state, we provide a secure market to over 350 dairy farms in the state and their employees,” says John E. Wells, Dairgold’s senior vice president and CFO.
Other strong economic influences from Washington’s agriculture and food industry include Seattle-based National Frozen Foods, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012, and the Northwest Seafood Processors Association.
Newhouse says as the WSDA prepares for its Centennial Celebration in 2013, the department is looking further ahead to make sure agriculture in Washington remains vibrant.
“We have developed a farm-to-market initiative that encourages employees and our agricultural partners to develop new ideas for how WSDA can assist Washington farms and businesses to create jobs and support prosperity throughout the state,” he says.