Washington leads nation in juice grapes, mint, pears

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KENNEWICK (AP) — Washington is ranked No. 1 in the United States for growing juice grapes, mint and pears. And state farmers are the second best producers of onions, nectarines, potatoes, sweet corn and asparagus.

The Kennewick area is home to some of the nation’s other crops, including hops, spearmint oil, sweet cherries and raspberries, The Tri-City Herald reported.

Some crops, such as Washington wine grapes, get their share of the limelight. But the others are also important to the region’s economy but aren’t as well known.

The director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture says that with about 300 crops, Washington has some of the nation’s most diverse agriculture.

As a matter of fact, Dan Newhouse says aerospace and agriculture make almost an identical contribution to the state economy. But unlike the aerospace industry, the state’s 39,500 farms are spread out among every county, Newhouse said.

Agriculture’s impact isn’t restricted to crops; it also includes processing, transportation and other related activities.

Agriculture contributes about $40 billion to the state’s economy each year, he said. Of that, crop production is about $8 billion and food processing is $12 billion.

“When the farmers have a good year, the Tri-Cities typically does well,” said Kris Watkins, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.

In the Tri-Cities, agriculture accounts for just as many jobs as Hanford nuclear site, but the industry’s share of the wages isn’t as high.

Agriculture represents about 9.5 percent of the Tri-Cities’ employment, with food processing making up another 3.4 percent, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist.

The importance of water to agriculture and its ties to the region’s economy can’t be understated, officials say.

For example, irrigation is the difference in Benton County between getting a yield of 130 bushels per acre for wheat instead of 25 bushels per acre in dryland fields, said Nicole Berg of Berg Farms near Prosser. One bushel is 60 pounds.

Irrigation is critical to apple orchards, which tend to follow Eastern Washington’s rivers, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission. Apples brought about $7 billion to the state economy during the 2010 crop year and created about 59,650 jobs, Fryhover said. It brings in $1.95 billion in employee wages and benefits.

And agriculture, especially wine, brings in tourists. The numbers of people drawn to the Tri-Cities area by wine continue to grow, Watkins said.

Yakima, the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla offer an authentic experience of vineyards and wines, where people can meet grape growers and award-winning winemakers, she said.

“The wine industry makes us an international destination,” Watkins said.