WWU study highlights economic benefits of agribusiness in Whatcom County

A new study from Western Washington University details how agriculture and related businesses are providing jobs and economic activity in Whatcom County. Photo: Joe Mabel

As a recent Western Washington University (WWU) study highlights the benefits of agriculture to Whatcom County businesses, one of the study’s authors as well as farmer advocates say they hope the information will shed light on the significant contributions the industry makes to employment and economic activity.

The Whatcom County Agribusiness Sector Analysis, released August 21 by WWU’s Center for Economic and Business Research, includes these key findings:

  • Farming contributes 8,405 jobs to the local Whatcom County economy, making up eight percent of total jobs;
  • Seasonality makes a huge difference: there is a jump of close to 6,000 jobs from winter to summer seasons;
  • Food manufacturing jobs are up seven percent in the past year; and
  • Dairy makes up 54 percent of all agricultural sales in the county, with fruit accounting for 22 percent of sales, largely in berries.

When combining farming, food processing and food manufacturing jobs, Whatcom County’s agribusiness sector provides 7,943 jobs and $276 million in annual wages. Apart from normal farming products – such as raw milk and potatoes – food processing represents a larger portion of the county’s economic activity than consumers often realize, according to Hart Hodges, who is co-author of the study and co-director of the Center.

According to the analysis, the Whatcom Business Alliance wanted the study to “more clearly define the local agribusiness sector,” which would include jobs and wages supported directly or indirectly through farming.

“The interesting thing about the study is when you ask people ‘what is farming?’ everybody has an idea, but when you start trying to be careful about it, it’s harder than you think,” said Hodges. “We had to think what should be counted and what shouldn’t.” The goal was to focus on agriculture and food production, while leaving out forestry and fishing.

Hodges said the sector includes businesses such as berry storage, food processing and milk processing facilities, all of which aren’t typically counted in agriculture’s economic impact in other such studies.

“When you start to look at it that way, there is a much bigger number of jobs than just saying ‘how many farmers are there,’” said Hodges.

“I think the message there is the ripples and connections of farming are a lot farther reaching than most of us think, because when somebody mentions a large accounting firm, you don’t normally think there’s a fair number of accountants at that firm working specifically with farmers,” he added.

Hodges said it was intriguing to talk with cold storage facility owners, along with a paving company employer who told Hodges that 20 percent of his business took place on farms.

“I wasn’t expecting banks and cold storage businesses to say that regulations that hurt farmers are seen in their own bottom line.”

“(Agribusiness) is absolutely critical when you look at the effect,” said Fred Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers (WFF). “(Farming) is one of the top producers of jobs and dollars in our economy. If we didn’t have a farming economy it would be a much different community we would be living in.

“I think it’s something most people don’t understand or don’t really calculate is the value and benefit that agriculture has to the local economy,” he added. “I think we all know it provides a lot inherently to our identity here in Whatcom County, but it’s not just a novel item, but something that is very vital economically to what we do….”

Also, a whole host of jobs exist only because of agriculture, he added, mentioning that his son works for a company that delivers appliances where farmers spend a “tremendous amount” of dollars.

“You wouldn’t traditionally think about that being an agricultural business supplier, but they need to supply washers and driers for temporary workers,” he said.

Agriculture also plays a large role for bankers and their business. A farmer with hundreds of acres of land can contribute more to a banker’s portfolio than the average business or city resident, Likkel said.

Another notable finding of the study was the data on seasonal employment, Hodges said. The industry provides an estimated 3,749 jobs and $101 million in wages within Whatcom County annually, according to the study. However, during the summer harvest, approximately 9,000 workers can find agricultural jobs within the county.

And according to Likkel, farmers in Whatcom County invest millions of dollars in resources to provide housing for temporary workers that come to fill the need during harvest season.

“In this sort of demand, farmers have to have pretty good housing,” he added. “Sometimes, they offer incentives for workers to stay on through the season.”

To strengthen connection between the farmers and the greater community, Sustainable Connections hosted its 10th annual Whatcom County Farm Tour on Sept. 9 and 10 which highlighted local farms across the county. According to Hodges, close to 1600 people took part in the tour over two days.

During a typical tour, farmers distribute samples of their products, invite people into their stores and offer special deals for tour-goers. Most farmers will also take people on tours of the farms to discuss how the food is produced and harvested while also considering environmental protections.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing we want to be doing to make sure the community knows who we are and what it is we do for the community,” said Likkel.

Unlike other industries, while agriculture’s “big players” aren’t as obvious, one might recognize them at farmers markets or at a farm-to-table restaurant, said Hodges. Tours help people visually recognize these farms, and having those sorts of conversations are important to understanding the entire picture.

 

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