Our Voice: Boeing takes center stage at special session but Ag's contribution deserves notice

November 8, 2013 

We've never had any doubt about the importance of agriculture to our state's economy.

But often Hanford and industries based on the West side of the state dominate the headlines.

That's why it was so refreshing to see several recent stories highlighting the impact crops grown here have statewide and internationally.

Gov. Jay Inslee was bemoaning the condition of our state's highways last month at a conference in Ellensburg. He said the long-term impact of our aging roadways could be detrimental to transporting produce and commodities across our state.

Inslee called a special session of the Legislature that is under way in Olympia, asking lawmakers to pass a $10 billion transportation-tax package. While we're glad he at least acknowledged that agriculture depends on good roads to make it to marketplaces and ports, the real motivator for the special session is to make a show for Boeing.

In addition to the transportation tax package, the governor wants an extension of commercial airplane tax incentives scheduled to expire in 2024. Boeing, a powerhouse of the Puget Sound economy, has steadily been shifting its business to other states offering more incentives and fewer hurdles to profits.

The pressure is on and Boeing is playing hardball over the question of whether the new 777X will be built in Washington or elsewhere. The tax incentives play a role, but it's really the machinists union that holds the cards for 777X production. Boeing is asking for some major concessions from the union, which is set to vote Wednesday. If that vote fails, it doesn't make a lick of difference what the Legislature does.

We expect that passage of a transportation package in a weeklong session would be extremely difficult, but the Boeing business might help motivate at least some action.

It's significant that agriculture production is almost a $10 billion dollar industry per year in our state. We could compare the value of ag to aerospace, but without equivalent data from the two industries it would be like comparing apples to airplanes.

Ag is big business. We'd love to take those who don't see its value on a tour, making stops at the Port of Pasco and visit Zen-Noh Hay, where alfalfa grown near Basin City begins its journey to eventually feed cattle in Japan. Zen-Noh Hay's parent company has estimated annual revenues of $57 billion.

Then we'd move on to Railex, where the Port of Walla Walla sees so much value in ag that it is putting another $2.7 million in rail improvements to handle Railex's increased train traffic. From Railex in tiny Wallula, onions grown outside of Finley will find their way onto dinner plates in New York City, as do wines produced in Washington.

Railex's expansion has been impressive, and it is opening a new distribution center in Jacksonville, Fla, which will double the number of trains taking Mid-Columbia grown products across the country each week. Factoring in all costs, the new distribution center is a $100 million investment for Railex. It also means more jobs for our community.

Railex opened its Wine Services division in February. That building can hold 5 million cases of wine and is already at 70 percent capacity. Most of it comes from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the state's largest wine producer and a company that just posted net revenues of $411 million year-to-date. Being able to move wine expeditiously and economically from here to the East Coast -- and now to the Southeast -- will only help grow those figures.

We could continue the tour but with just two stops we think our point would be made. Then we could adjourn to one of the local tasting rooms that have now evolved into fine dining destinations, featuring locally grown and raised products to celebrate the bounty of agriculture.

Ag is big deal. It's about time the rest of the state took notice.

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