Let’s Talk Ag

When it comes to economic development, Prosperity Partnership has always recognized the importance of working not only regionally but also statewide.  That’s why we have WSU President Elson Floyd as one of our co-chairs, it’s why we run cross-state bus tours, and it’s why so many of the organizations we help launch – Aerospace Futures Alliance, Washington Clean Tech Alliance, etc. – are statewide. Of course, the most important reason is that we actually share a lot of industry clusters: clean tech, aerospace, IT, life sciences, trade, tourism and military all have big roles in both the central Puget Sound economy as well as the state’s. But there’s one thing we don’t mutually focus on: agriculture. Or do we?

When you think stereotypes in this state, you think high tech on the west side of the mountains and ag on the east side of the mountains. After you realize you’re wrong, you think, “OK, there is both high tech AND ag on the east side of the state.” But you never add the reverse phrase, “OK, there is both high tech and ag on the west side of the state too!” (Technically, the reverse phrase is “.etats eht fo edis tsae…” but who’s counting.)

When you look at the employment numbers, agricultural jobs are only a few thousand in our region, compared to over 10,000 in the TriCities and Chelan regions, and well over 25,000 in the Yakima area. But just because ag jobs themselves are in other places, doesn’t mean that we’re not linked to those jobs. A few examples:

  • Wine: A lot of the Washington wines grown/bottled in eastern WA have strong presence here, like the Chateau St. Michelle, which is one of the top tourism destinations in our region.
  • Tourism: Speaking of tourism, places like Snohomish County use ag as a draw, especially around harvest time.
  • Clean tech: You know all the efforts around biofuels in this state?  A lot of those bioproducts get grown in Eastern Washington.  For example, AltAir Fuels and Targeted Growth (both based in Seattle) are focusing on camelina (aka “false flax”), which not only grows very well in eastern WA but also can be grown in alternate rotation with food crops so as not to decrease food supply in favor of biofuels.
  • International Trade: The biggest local export through our ports is eastern WA ag products.
  • Local food production: As it turns out, there is a decent amount of specialty foods manufacturing and food processing  going on in our region. In fact, it was a choice between tourism, military and specialty foods as the last two clusters to add to the Regional Economic Strategy (as you can see, almost 15,000 jobs back in 2004). And who knows?  When we do the next Regional Economic Strategy development process in fall 2010/spring 2011, it just might rise to the level of getting its own cluster strategy.  No doubt, a link to the state’s ag sector has a big influence on that cluster’s strength.

Interesting, eh?  Maybe there’s less differences between us than we thought.  And maybe time for another bus trip by western WA business, government and community leaders across the mountains?

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