Washington Agriculture by the Numbers

May 28, 2014
By David Granatstein
Rainier cherries grown in WA (photo: Thomas Hawk)

Rainier cherries grown in WA (photo: Thomas Hawk)

The results of the 2012 Census of Agriculture were recently released by USDA.  Every 5 years, the National Agricultural Statistics Service fields a nationwide census to all identifiable farms in the country.  The census reports contain a wealth of information and new questions are added as agriculture changes, such as questions on direct marketing, organic production, use of rotational or management-intensive grazing, and harvest of biomass crops for energy.

In 2012, Washington farmers and ranchers generated $9.12 billion in farm level sales, an all-time high.  Of this, one-third came from tree fruits and berries, as Washington is the top U.S. producer of apples, pears, and sweet cherries (both conventional and organic).  The second-, third-, and fourth-largest sales contributors were the grain, oilseed, dry bean, and dry pea sector; the milk sector; and the vegetable, melon, potato, and sweet potato sector, respectively.  Washington has been the nation’s leading producer of Concord grapes, dry peas, hops, spearmint oil, processing carrots, and red raspberries as well, and is an increasingly large producer of blueberries.  Twenty-five years ago, Washington was the nation’s leader for many of these same crops, but the top farm level sales were from milk, cattle and calves, apples, wheat, and potatoes, with a state total of $2.90 billion.

Grant County was the leading agricultural county in the state in terms of crop sales (conventional and organic), and was ranked 11th nationally.  Whitman County and Lincoln County were the two top wheat producing counties in the nation.  Washington was second to California nationally in farm gate sales of organic products.

In general, the total number of farms in the state has not changed appreciably between 1982 (36,080) and today (37,249).  The peak was 40,113 farms in 1997 (Table 1).  Farmland, however, shows a continuing small but steady decrease, down 1.5% from 2007.  The average farm size in 2012 was 396 acres compared to 428 acres in 1982, with no clear pattern of increase or decrease over time (Table 1). Average age of the operator rose to 58.8 years, with 23.2 years in farming.

WA Ag by the Numbers

Table 1. Washington Farms

The percent of farms in the smallest size class (1-9 acres) has been increasing and now accounts for 28% of farms in the state.  Mid-size farms (10-179 acres) have decreased as a percentage, and large farms have been steady.  In 2012, 34% of all farms reported sales of <$1,000 for that year, up from 29% in 2002.  These are not likely providing a livelihood for the operator. Seventy-nine percent of farms had less than $50,000 in gross sales, but only accounted for 1.8% of all state farm gate sales, down from 3.5% in 2002. Thus, while the numbers of small farms appears to be increasing, their economic share of farm gate sales is decreasing.

Certified organic farm gate sales were about $355 million in 2012, or 3.1% of the state total, coming from 2% of the farms and 1.2% of the cropland.  In comparison, 0.6% of farms in the U.S. were organic, and 0.8% of the land was certified. Over 50% of the state farm gates organic sales came from tree fruits.

Direct sales to consumers were estimated to be $45 million statewide in 2012, up 3% from 2007.  A recent report on farmers markets showed at least $30 million in sales through that direct channel in 2010. The number of CSA (community-supported agriculture, a common structure used by small, new farmers) farms was 388, an 11% decrease from 2007. For comparison, total retail food sales in Washington for 2013 were estimated to be $15.2 billion, based on Dept. of Revenue data.

CSANR also just posted two new reports on Washington organic agriculture, with data derived from the organic certifiers.   These annual updates have been done since 2004.  Washington organic farmland acreage (certified and transition) decreased another 4% from the previous year, down some 22,000 acres from the peak in 2009.  However, acres of forage, tree fruit, and vegetables (which together account for 75% of all certified acres) all showed modest increases, while land classified as ‘mixed horticulture’ was up 40%. Organic blueberry area continued to grow, especially in eastern Washington.  Organic blueberries account for at least 12% of all blueberry acreage in the state, exceeding the 9.6% organic share of state acreage for apples.  Eastern Washington had 63% of the certified farms, 67% of the certified acres, and 83% of the gross farm gate sales.

Fresh apples (photo: T. Gill)

(photo: T. Gill)

Overall, the census paints a picture of a healthy agricultural sector in the state.  Both demand and prices have been strong for many of our products.  The average Washington farm had a 37% increase in sales from 2007 to 2012. But overall production expenses rose 45%, leading to a 2% decline in net farm income in 2012.  Finding ways to mitigate rising input costs in the future will be important to managing risk.  Also, we are an export-reliant state, and events that would interfere with export movement would cause serious problems.  The state can easily feed itself with its current productive capacity, but of course our diet would be more seasonal and less varied.  In 2012, our state produced over 15 billion apples.  If each citizen ate 3 apples a day (per the plan developed by Tammi Flynn of Wenatchee), we would still only consume 0.1% of what we grow.  Our diversity of agriculture in terms of climates, crops, farm size, production methods, and marketing strategies is an important factor in buffering our farms against both expected and unforeseen events in the future.  Almost all farms still rely on petroleum inputs to operate, and thus a move to more on-farm energy production would be worth exploring.  Unfortunately, the Census didn’t ask that question so we don’t really know how much this has grown.

2 comments on “Washington Agriculture by the Numbers”

  1. Diana Roberts said on May 29, 2014:

    I wouldn’t mind if Lincoln and Whitman Counties moved off the top wheat producing list – as then we would be diversifying successfully :)

  2. Phil Crawford said on June 1, 2014:

    Thank you, David, for a very nice picture of WA agriculture, especially giving attention to the lesser but growing segments.

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