Ag census shows rise in Benton, Franklin values

Ingrid Stegemoeller, Herald staff writerFebruary 5, 2009 

Benton County had more acres of grapes in 2007 than any other county in the state, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The 23,322 acres brought the county up from second place behind Yakima County in 2002, when about 22,500 acres were planted in wine and juice grapes, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture.

The census was last completed in 2002 and it counts the country's farms and ranches and the people who operate them, said David Knopf, director of the Washington Field Office of the NASS.

Crops using the most land in Benton and Franklin counties stayed relatively steady.

Forage crops, wheat, potatoes, vegetables and sweet corn continued to hold the top five acreage slots, along with grapes in Benton County.

But the value of crops and livestock produced in the two counties in 2007 grew by about a third over 2002 values, according to the report.

That increase likely was driven largely by the jump in commodity prices, Knopf said. "It's very safe to say the majority of that increase can be chalked up to the higher prices," he said.

Benton County's value of crop production was nearly $526 million, up 31 percent from almost $401 million in 2002.

In Franklin County, farmers produced nearly $467 million in crops and livestock, up 33 percent from the $350.5 million worth of crops produced in 2002.

And all those crops are responsible for thousands of jobs.

On-the-farm work and food processing create about 15,000 jobs in the bicounty area, said Dean Schau, regional labor economist. "We are the second-largest farm employer in the state, next to Yakima," he said.

Schau also called the Tri-Cities the "french fry capital of the free world," where potatoes are grown, stored and processed in relatively close proximity. Having supporting production and processing in one area is a boon to the industry, he said.

Value of crop production in Umatilla and Morrow counties in Oregon also was up by about 50 percent.

In Umatilla County the value rose to $320.7 million from $205.7 million in 2002.

And in Morrow County the number jumped to $353.5 million from $237.3 million in 2002.

One surprise that came out of the census was the rise in the number of farms statewide, Knopf said. There were 39,284 Washington farms reported in the 2007 census, up 9 percent from 2002.

Farm acreage was down about 2 percent statewide, however, from 15.3 million acres in 2002 to just under 15 million acres in 2007.

That's a loss of about 70,000 acres per year, Knopf said, adding, "I think urban sprawl is the primary motivator."

The census also examined the demographics of farmers and found the average age of primary farm operators in Benton and Franklin counties was 56 and 55, respectively.

Alan Schreiber, an Eltopia farmer, called it the "graying of farming." Getting into farming is difficult and most often it happens when a son of a farmer branches off, he said.

"When you're right down at our level you don't think about that too much," Schreiber said. "But from a public policy standpoint I think it's something to think about."

Also released this week were results from the Future of Farming, a yearlong strategic planning process coordinated by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

"This report, the first in more than 20 years, seeks to capture what Washington farmers say they need to remain competitive in a global marketplace," said Bob Gore, WSDA acting director.

Hundreds of people from the state's agricultural industry provided input.

Eliminating regulatory barriers, protecting resources, harnessing emerging opportunities such as demand for local foods and establishing a business environment conducive to success were some of the main recommendations that came out of the study.

"The Future of Farming can and should inform public policy debates, wherever they occur, that impact the success of the agriculture community," Gore said.

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