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US (WA): Agriculture keeps Yakima economy afloat

Even in the era of a high-tech, wired society, agriculture remains the economic engine of the Yakima Valley. Recent numbers serve to drive home that point, and some numbers within the numbers help show how.

Last week, the June employment report from the state Employment Security Department showed agricultural jobs in Yakima County rose 16.6 percent from June 2011, which brought down the unemployment rate to 9.3 percent. That is still more than a percentage point above the state’s rate but a vast improvement over the 10 percent from a year earlier.

Later in the week, at the annual Central Washington Economic Symposium at Yakima Valley Community College, speakers noted how the percentage of agricultural jobs in Yakima County has increased in the past five years, from 22.03 percent to 24.77 percent. Also at the symposium, word came that fresh apple prices are up to 10 percent to 20 percent from a year ago, with apple juice prices up by 50 percent.

Luck has played a role. Weather has been better in the valley than in other parts of the country. State growers expect to harvest a record 120 million boxes of fresh apples this year. But that output won’t create a glut; late spring frosts have cut into apple production in Michigan and New York state, so prices should remain high.

But on top of that, the industry has adjusted to changing tastes and markets. Red Delicious remains the No. 1 variety, with 31 percent of the state’s apple crop, but that’s down from 51 percent as recently as 1999. In addition, exports play an increasingly large role. The Washington Apple Commission reports about 30 percent of the crop heads to about 60 countries around the world; the top five are Mexico, Canada, India, Hong Kong/China and Indonesia. Understanding these global markets becomes increasingly important in selling the state’s iconic fruit.

The ag sector has buffered the region from the effects of the national recession, though it hasn’t stopped the impact altogether. Ag growth comes with ripple effects, but economists say it will be another year or two for the latest local hiring up tick to take effect in other sectors.

Issues remain, of course. Many jobs are seasonal and low wage, and farming is always at the whim of weather and consumer tastes. But Yakima County’s agricultural roots keep it well-grounded amid the nation’s stiff economic headwinds.

Source: yakima-herald.com

Publication date: 7/31/2012


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