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Originally published October 6, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Page modified October 7, 2012 at 5:58 PM

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Apples to India just slice of opportunity for state

Special to The Seattle Times

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$4.28 billion for 18% of the farms. MORE
$4.28 billion in subsidies for 18% of Washington farms. Let me guess; hose were the... MORE
Washington state apples never sold overseas before Gregoire became Governor? MORE

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My favorite story of a worthless trade mission came a few years ago when the then-mayor of Phoenix traveled to Dubai. Here was one overbuilt, unsustainable desert city seeking trade ties with another overbuilt, unsustainable desert city. It all came to grief in the great real-estate collapse.

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s current trip to India and South Korea is different. With some 40 percent of Washington jobs dependent on international trade, every governor must be the chief salesperson.

While biotech and biomedical figure prominently in this trip, with the governor joined by nearly 50 business, government and education leaders, so does agriculture.

For example, many of the apples now being harvested east of the Cascades are bound for India. The nation is the No. 3 apple-export market for Washington. Last year, state growers shipped 4 million boxes to India, double the total for 2010.

This has happened despite a 50 percent tariff against imported apples. So, Washington has beaten the competition into India to become the No. 1 export supplier.

With a middle class expected to reach 276 million by 2016, the growth potential is big. India also imports wine, pears, peaches and lentils from Washington.

I’m not sure a governor can do much to push back tariffs, but face time between officials and business leaders is a good thing, particularly because Washington is already strongly positioned in India. Logistical and retailing challenges can be laid out and perhaps some progress made.

Matt Harris of the Washington Potato Commission called India ”the new food frontier” for his growers. Unfortunately, unlike many nations, India hasn’t warmed up to U.S. frozen French fries, which face confusing rules and duties.

In South Korea, Washington agriculture stands a good chance to gain market share as barriers are lowered by the Korean-U.S. trade agreement. Nearly 39 percent of Washington exports to South Korea, the largest segment, came from agriculture.

Tariffs on most agricultural imports to the nation will be lowered over 10 years. Indeed, Korean opponents of the trade agreement warned it could cost up to 130,000 farm jobs there.

Gregoire will try to put our best fries forward. On Wednesday, she is to serve Washington-grown French fries at a Popeye’s restaurant, as well as promote state goods at a Costco.

While agriculture doesn’t have the sex appeal of airplanes, information technology or life sciences, it could be counted as a fourth cluster in Washington. It accounts for the state’s third-largest segment of exports, totaling $11.3 billion last year.

Breaking it down against the other states, Washington ranked 17th in agricultural exports in 2010. But that number is deceiving. We placed second in potatoes, third in fresh fruits, fourth in wheat and fourth in fresh vegetables.

To be sure, agriculture doesn’t create many well-paying jobs. Indeed, its migrant labor force for harvesting has been uncertain for several years as undocumented immigrants have come under pressure.

On the other hand, numbers of good jobs are supported in transportation and the port.

And agriculture is no shining example of ”free trade.” Instead, it shows America has an industrial policy even if it won’t admit it, or extend it to manufacturers beyond a favored few such as Boeing.

According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, Washington received $4.28 billion in subsidies from 1995 to 2011. But so pervasive are they in American agriculture that Washington ranked only 23 out of 50 states. Also, 82 percent of farms did not collect a subsidy payment.

The outlook is not secured, despite Washington’s historic success.

Agriculture is highly affected by oil prices. Oil is used in farm chemicals, as well as for fuel to operate machinery and transport commodities. The ten-thousand-mile supply chain that carries Washington products to the world is highly dependent on relatively inexpensive oil.

Climate change is moving forward whether the presidential candidates discuss it or not. It’s impossible to say with total certainty how much the ruinous drought in the heartland can be blamed on global warming.

The question in the Northwest is how much climate change will affect growing seasons and the overall ecosystem that supports, for example, fruit trees.

If we dodge those bullets, water scarcity elsewhere might make Washington commodities even more coveted, as arable land shrinks in other places. That is, if these stresses don’t cause such disruption and war that few have the money or time to find an apple.

Still, Washington agriculture faces the future from a strong base. Its exports barely broke stride in the Great Recession, a hopeful sign for the future.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com

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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest

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