The Ebb and Flow within the Agriculture Commodities Sector of Walla Walla County

by Brian Kennedy and Dr. Patrick Jones

The agricultural sector within Walla Walla County is a dynamic system that consistently shows flexibility within the markets. While wheat still is the dominate crop in terms of acreage, given the dryland climate, some new crops have been growing in market share. Understanding what, how, and how many commodities are produced is exactly what the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) attempts when the department conducts the Census of Agriculture. It is an effort to get a complete count of the farms, ranches, and the people who operate them at the county level within the United States. The census, conducted once every five years, looks at land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures of every farm that can claim $1,000 or more in agricultural products produced and sold during the year. It is the only comprehensive account of the entire agriculture sector across the United States, allowing for farmers, cooperatives, community planners, and legislators a glimpse at the trend of specific crops and products locally, regionally and nationally.

Indicator 1.2.7 shows us that across Walla Walla County’s 903 farms reporting in the 2017 census, $526.2 million in agricultural products were sold, ranging from wheat and onions to grapes and fruit trees. The county is responsible for just over 5% of the $9.6 billion agricultural sales throughout the state, a share that has been consistent for the last 10 years. Despite its small share of the state agricultural sector, Walla Walla’s value per farm has always been higher than that of the state. In 2017, Walla Walla County’s average sales per farm was over $580,000, over double that of the state at about $270,000. However, Walla Walla lags behind some of the agriculture-heavy counties in Eastern Washington, such as Benton ($660,000), Franklin ($818,000), and Yakima ($673,000) Counties. (Similar trends for Benton and Franklin Counties can be found on Benton Franklin Trends indicator 1.1.2 and data for Yakima County can be found on Yakima Valley Trends indicator 1.1.1)

While understanding the total market value of agriculture within Walla Walla is important, knowing the industry breakdown within the sector paints the real story of what is happening locally.

According to the USDA, in 2017, $249.1 million of all of Walla Walla County’s market value came from the fruit, tree nuts, and berries sector, largely dominated by grapes and apples. Grapes, supply the approximately 184 wineries located in the county; the trend of the growth of wineries can be found in indicator 1.4.7. This category accounted for nearly 50% of all the agricultural products sold within the county in 2017. Just ten years’ prior, these crops only claimed 32%, indicating that this sub-sector is growing quite fast.

The very rapid rate at which grapes and fruit trees are growing would indicate the value of some commodities has tapered off in recent years. The biggest decline in agricultural market share comes from vegetables and potatoes. In 2007 they accounted for 53% of all market value of Walla Walla agricultural products; by 2017 this share had dropped to just 13%. Additional declines of 24% to 17% in the grains and dry beans and peas commodities made room for expansion of the fruit trees and grapes to be grown throughout the county. Debbie Williams, director of the WSU Extension in Walla Walla County, cites the decline in food manufacturing through the county and international pressures as partly responsible for the fluctuations in the sector makeup. For example, “commodities such as asparagus, were higher in 2007 but now face pressures from imports from Peru.”

These shifts in the agricultural sector may seem at first glance as minor but in reality agriculture plays a major role in the entire county’s economy. Data taken from the Quarterly Census of Employee Workforce (QCEW), and shown on indicator 1.3.5, indicates that there were 3,720 individuals employed in the sector, making up 13% of the entire county workforce. The sector’s $117 million paid out to workers also account for nearly 10% of all the wages earned in the county. This made agriculture the 4th largest sector in the county in both employment and wages earned. Including agricultural support activities, such as food and beverage manufacturing, would push employment to just over 6,000 and about $208 million in wages. So any change in agriculture within the county can have dramatic impacts throughout the entire county economy.

In the end, it’s clear that agricultural sector is quite vibrant in Walla Walla. Ms. Williams stated it nicely, “the agriculture sector is dynamic but wheat, apples, and wine are all important crops to us and the diversity is good to help when one of these commodities see a problem”. Given the inevitable market fluctuations, it is clear that the agricultural sector in the county are far from static.