Benton and Franklin counties maintained their position as Washington's third- and fourth-most valuable farming counties, according to 2012 census data released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The increasing worth of the Mid-Columbia's crops helped the state reach $9.1 billion in agricultural sales in 2012, the census said.
Crops grown in Benton County were worth about $923 million in 2012, while Franklin County's crops earned $740 million, the census said. Both saw the value climb by more than 58 percent since 2007, when the last census was done.
"We have a large diversification of more than 100 commercial crops grown in the area," said James Alford, Franklin County Farm Bureau president.
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He credits Franklin County farmers' access to irrigation water, the long growing season and low power costs. Farmers here also have access to a strong transportation system connecting them to ports for export.
Local farmers have been willing to try new crops and experiment with technology, particularly when it comes to irrigation, equipment and global positioning systems, Alford said.
"We are kind of a pioneering group of people when it comes to technology," he said.
Yakima and Grant were the state's top two counties for the value of agricultural products. Walla Walla County was fifth.
"Agriculture remains a critical economic engine for Washington, no matter where you live, and our farmers and ranchers are producing record amounts of food that is helping to feed people around the world," said Mark Streuli, deputy director of the state Department of Agriculture.
Data from the census can help inform decisions on issues affecting the agricultural industry, he said.
Along with bringing in the cash, Benton County also grows enough sweet corn and potatoes to make it one of the largest counties in the nation for both crops.
Grant and Benton counties were the top two counties nationwide for sweet corn acres. Benton County had more than 25,000 acres of sweet corn harvested in 2012.
And Grant and Benton counties had the second- and third-most potato acres in the nation, according to USDA. Benton County harvested nearly 34,000 acres of potatoes in 2012. Franklin County was close at 31,000 acres.
Sweet corn is a good rotation crop for area farmers, and in warmer areas can be double-cropped, said Tim Waters, vegetable specialist with Washington State University Extension in Franklin County. Sweet corn is planted starting in April. Growers plant varieties that take different amounts of time to mature and also plant the same variety over a period of time so harvest can stretch from July through October.
Again, relatively cheap power, good transportation systems and access to foreign markets help Mid-Columbia growers, Waters said. Farmers in Franklin and Walla Walla counties also grow sweet corn.
"We have great processing infrastructure here in the Columbia Basin," he said. Much of the sweet corn is processed.
The Columbia Basin also is in a sweet spot when it comes to potatoes.
"We've just got the perfect combination here in Eastern Washington of weather, of the ability to be able to control water inputs and really kind of the soil that makes up the land that potatoes are grown in," said Ryan Holterhoff, the Washington State Potato Commission's director of marketing and industry affairs.
The result is the most productive potato fields in the world, he said. Last year, state farmers grew 9.6 billion pounds of potatoes. Of that, about 87 percent went to processors.
Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla county farms