The diversity and dynamism of Washington state's economy can be seen in its agriculture and food production industry.
Agriculture and food production accounts for $46 billion in annual sales, 13 percent of the state's total economy. Apples, milk, wheat, potatoes, hay, cattle and winelead the way in sales of 300 commodities produced.
"Some type of agriculture occurs in literally all 39 counties in our state," says Hector Castro, communications director with the Washington State Department of Agriculture. "We're big in crop farming and cattle ranching, and we're big in food processing."
The state's ideal climate conditions, abundance of water, good soil, low energy costs, access to major transportation venues and a bumper crop of 130,000 agriculture workers create a fertile climate for opportunities.
Castro points out that while many U.S. agricultural states are dominated by farms run by huge corporate operations, Washington still provides good opportunities for small farms to thrive.
"More than 80 percent of the 39,500 operations in Washington are owned by small farmers, and an increasing number are owned and operated by women," he says. "Latino farm owners are a growing segment as well."
One such example is Sergio Marquez, who owns Marquez Farms apple orchard in Wapato near Yakima. Marquez is a long-time foreman on the farm who purchased the 180-acre orchard in 2004 from then-owners John and Judy Hunter, and today, Marquez enjoys a healthy and profitable enterprise.
"I bought the farm for $200,000 and will have it paid off in three more years," he says. "I still run the orchard like a foreman, but it's sure a lot better being the owner."
While crops produce high yields in Washington, the dairy industry is also a powerful agricultural segment. Dairy ranks as the state's second-highest valued commodity, after apples.
"We export tons of powdered milk to foreign countries, and Washington is the second-largest exporter of dairy products, behind only California," Castro says. "The industry has made many improvements in recent years that result in higher dairy production, including more high-tech equipment and better cattle care and nutrition. Washington dairy cows now produce an average of 10 gallons of milk a day (each), which is impressive."
Focusing on Exports
Washington is also a major potato producing state, accounting for 21 percent of U.S. potato production and second only to Idaho. Washington's potato industry delivers a $4.6 billion economic impact and supports 23,500 jobs, with the Columbia Basin serving as a prime region for growing potatoes.
Washington state's ag industry has taken up the challenge set by the Obama administration to double U.S. exports by 2014. More than 90 percent of the state's wheat crop is exported, and about 30 percent of the state's total agricultural commodities are exported. Combined, more than $16.3 billion in food, agricultural and seafood products are now exported from Washington each year.
Toasting New Markets
One agricultural sector looking to increase export opportunities is the state's signature wine industry, which now ships about 5 percent of its production to foreign markets.
Woodinville-based Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has an international sales executive whose sole mission is to increase the winery's sales to foreign countries. As a result, Ste. Michelle wines are now distributed in more than 100 countries, and the winery is the leading wine exporter in Washington.
"I have dedicated my professional career to exporting American wines, including 18 years with Ste. Michelle," says Al Portney, vice president of international sales. "My sales presentation to international clients first describes Washington as a beautiful place to live, then I tell them who we are and what we produce."
Every two years, Portney flies to the Bordeaux region in France to attend Vinexpo, a global trade show that hosts wine professionals from more than 140 countries. Vinexpo allows him to network with hundreds of wine industry individuals from around the world.
And every two years, Ste. Michelle hosts the Washington State Wine Experience, an international wine exporting event that drew 60 people from a dozen countries to Washington in 2013.
"There were importers, food and beverage managers, large retailers, restaurant owners and journalists "“ all learning about Washington wines," Portney says. "The word continues to grow about the excellence of Washington wines."