State agriculture official sees China as ripe with possibility

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldDecember 21, 2013 

Bud Hover sees China as a prize for Washington agriculture.

Growing exports, solving labor shortages and reconnecting Washington residents with farms are among the tasks facing the new state Department of Agriculture director.

Agriculture, including food processing, makes up about 13 percent of employment in the Tri-Cities and drives about 13 percent of the state's economy.

Hover, a Winthrop hay and cattle farmer, took over the reins of the agency in April. On a recent visit to the Tri-Cities, he talked about how growing the state's exports to China would help sales of apples, cherries, potatoes and blueberries.

"Their people are just clamoring for what we have," Hover said.

While visiting China with Gov. Jay Inslee, Hover saw Washington apples for sale at Chinese stores and fruit vendors, he said -- although they are currently illegal in that country and stores can be fined for carrying them.

Export opportunities

Washington has the potential to double or triple its exports to China, which is already a large customer, Hover said.

China may open its markets to Washington's Red and Golden Delicious apples after Chinese New Year on Jan. 31, and it looks like fresh potatoes will also get access next year, he said.

There has been an embargo on Washington apples in China for the past two years, he said. And while the state already has a good market there for its processed potatoes, it doesn't have access for its chipping potatoes and fresh potatoes, which make up about 20 percent of the Washington crop.

Chinese officials expressed strong interest in expanding trade with Washington, Hover said. Chinese consumers are looking for high-quality, safe products and are willing to pay upwards of 80 percent more for those American products.

The state ships about $8.6 billion worth of food products out of its ports each year to other countries, he said. The state's residents consume only about 20 percent of the products its farmers grow. About 50 percent goes to the rest of the U.S., and the remaining 30 percent is exported.

Other markets that show some promise include Vietnam and the Middle East, Hover said. And Washington needs to continue to tend to the needs of Mexico and Canada, two of its major trading partners.

Future challenges

Labor, regulations and public perception are among the challenges Washington's farmers face, Hover said.

"Agriculture is not easy," he said. "You are fighting weather. You are fighting increasing regulation. You are fighting markets."

Labor remains a top issue concern for many crops, not just tree fruit, Hover said. A big part of solving labor shortages falls on the federal government, and immigration reform is critical to the state's agricultural industry.

Farmers need to have a consistent, skilled work force, he said. There needs to be a manageable program where farmers can hire foreign workers to do the work, collect their pay and then return to their homes.

The H-2A guestworker program is cumbersome and uncertain, Hover said. Farmers need something that is simpler and faster and useable by smaller farmers.

It's also critical to make sure that future regulations do not become too burdensome, Hover said. While some regulation is necessary to ensure food safety and quality, legislators need to examine the consequences to agriculture before adopting new rules.

At the same time, agriculture can get overshadowed by companies in other industries, such as Boeing and Microsoft, Hover said.

Statewide, there has been a disconnect from agriculture in urban metro areas, even though every county has some agriculture, he said.

It's a problem nationwide as fewer and fewer people have a connection to farms, he said.

The state Department of Agriculture needs to do a better job of communicating the importance of agriculture as an economic driver and as a provider of good quality food, he said.

Huge array of products

Despite the challenges, Hover appears optimistic about the state's future in farming.

Agriculture, including processing, is up by about 6 percent from 2011, to an overall $49 billion last year, Hover said.

It's significant that the state is seeing revenue from agriculture increase even when the economy overall has been poor, he said.

He called the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley two of the premier agricultural food-growing areas in the country, and spoke passionately about how the area's dry climate, irrigation water and hot days and cold nights are ideal for crops such as grapes, apples and mint.

Washington grows the second most diverse set of crops, after California.

"Our growers have such a huge array of products that they can actually try to grow," Hover said.

Having Washington State University researchers to serve the state's agricultural industry is another advantage for farmers, he said. Farmers are also benefiting from cutting-edge technology that attracts foreign visitors to Washington industry meetings.

The wine industry also continues to make great strides, Hover said. He pointed to the Kennewick Irrigation District's recent efforts to bring Yakima River water to Red Mountain near Benton City. A Canadian company bought all of the land KID was offering on Red Mountain in an auction.

Washington is second only to California in the production of high-quality wines, Hover said. And right now, it's difficult to keep up with demand.

The berry industry is another growing portion of state agriculture, Hover said. Blueberries are becoming a larger crop, with farmers hitting a record last year.

Also growing are dry edible beans, which includes garbanzo beans, and canola, he said.

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