Farmers and companies that supply consulting, equipment, fuel and a myriad other services to produce crops account for one out of every four jobs in Yakima County, evidence of the role agriculture plays in sustaining the Yakima Valley’s economy.

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Record apple and cherry crops in 2012 that led to increases in seasonal employment only served to boost the Valley’s economic engine.

Production agriculture and support industries such as crop protection and irrigation management services accounted for more than 25,000 jobs in 2011, the last year full statistics are available, paying wages of $566 million, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Elsewhere in the region, agriculture supplied 21 percent of the jobs in Klickitat County — though the entire workforce there is much smaller — 9.5 percent in Benton County and 5 percent in Kittitas County.

In Yakima County, while the industry provides 25 percent of the jobs, wages paid are only 17 percent of the total $3.2 billion payroll from all employment categories.

Don Meseck, regional labor economist for Employment Security, said his review of several years of data shows the strong and stable foundation that agriculture provides the Yakima Valley economy.

Meseck said the local economy doesn’t grow as fast as the rest of the state in economic good times. But by the same token, the local area hasn’t suffered as badly when times are tough.

“It demonstrates this industry has performed well. It is a pillar of our local economy,” Meseck observed.

Indeed.

Agriculture is the largest employment sector in the county, exceeding the other major categories of health care, government, education and retail.

But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Adding in food manufacturing — fruit and vegetable processing and warehouse activities for nondurable goods — boosts agriculture-related employment to more than 30,000, about 30 percent of the county’s total labor force.

Add in those wages and the total rises to nearly $780 million.

What is difficult to pinpoint is the share of other sectors that also support agriculture, such as transportation, equipment manufacturing, canning and packing suppliers that add jobs and wages to the mix.

At the farm level, a continued consolidation and growth of individual farms is placing a greater premium on an adequate labor supply. Agriculture has struggled to develop a stable workforce in recent years with harvest labor shortages reported. There are fears that as the economy improves, fewer people who work seasonally on farms at the current time will do so in the future.

The overall industry is expected to remain a solid performer, however, thanks to the diversity of crops grown in the state’s top agricultural county, where apples, hops, cherries, Concord grapes and spearmint oil lead the nation in production.

“We have 39 different commodities grown in the Yakima Valley,” said David McFadden, president of the Yakima County Development Association, also known as New Vision. “Because we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket, agriculture provides a big stabilizing force for our economy. The industry is going through a healthy cycle now. When I talk to farmers, this is as good as they have seen it.”

Today’s robust agricultural industry couldn’t have been dreamed of when pioneers saw the Yakima Valley’s potential and tapped the Yakima and Naches rivers and smaller streams as early as 1870 to make the desert bloom. By 1902, 120,000 acres in Kittitas and Yakima counties were being irrigated.

That year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was formed; it began development of the Yakima Irrigation Project in 1905. The agency now delivers water to 460,000 acres in Central Washington, creating a national leader in agricultural production.

The big player in agricultural success is the apple industry, which produced a record crop in 2012 of about 129 million boxes. Apple growers produced that crop on fewer acres as growers renovate orchards to higher density plantings that produce more fruit sooner.

Statewide, apple acreage has declined from 192,000 acres in 2001 to about 167,000 acres in 2011. At the same time, production has grown from about 85 million boxes to last year’s record.

While the orchard makeup has changed, so has the variety of apples as growers look to meet consumer demand for better tasting fruit. Red Delicious remains the predominant variety with about 30 percent of production, but that’s down from more than 50 percent a few years ago.

Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, said the Gala variety now accounts for 20 percent of production. Honeycrisp increased to 5 million boxes last year. Packing firms are rolling out other new varieties that now account for 4 million boxes.

At $1.8 billion, apples were the state’s top agricultural commodity in terms of value at the first point of sale in 2011. The value for all crops produced in the state that year was a record $9.4 billion, including government payments of $230 million.

Another major Valley commodity, milk, placed second in value statewide at $1.2 billion, followed by wheat, potatoes and hay.

The values represent what the commodity was estimated to be worth as it left the farm. Processing, storage and marketing aren’t included in that figure.

Yakima Valley producers also contribute greatly to exports, which also set a statewide record in 2011 of $8.6 billion in the value of goods shipped abroad, according to Mike Louisell, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Among the products shipped abroad are the Valley’s sweet cherries. Acreage has increased by 50 percent in the last decade to more than 37,000 acres. Production in the Northwest could jump to 50 million boxes from the current record of 23 million boxes, industry officials say.

Alfalfa and wheat growers also had good years in 2012. Wine grape growers produced one of their best crops ever last year.

And near-term prospects appear bright for agriculture, which, like other industries, is subject to going through cycles.

The industry is riding the crest of a couple of trends that offer opportunities and challenges, according to Kevin Riel, a diversified Harrah farmer and chairman of the board of Northwest Farm Credit Services, the largest agriculture lender in the region.

Riel, along with a brother and a cousin, produces hops, apples, hay and Concord grapes on a 1,600-acre farm. He said he believes producers will continue to grow and diversify to gain efficiencies in their operations. Another trend gaining favor is the local-food movement in which consumers are looking to purchase more of their food that is grown close to home.

“That particularly resonates on the west side and in Puget Sound. I think that is helping people get more connected to agriculture and realize how important it is,” he said. “We are seeing that segment grow. That is helping agriculture, the small local farmers and all of agriculture.”

A combination of farmers looking to expand their operations and outside investors looking for better returns than have been available elsewhere during the economic recession is pushing up land prices.

Increases have been most apparent in the last three years. Statistics put together by Wally Morrison, lead agricultural appraiser for the Yakima County Assessor’s Office, show average land prices have risen 21 percent since 2010. Overall, average prices for land were $5,347 per acre last year, compared to $4,148 per acre in 2010.

Orchard land is selling for a per-acre average of $7,902 and the average for open ground is $5,029, sales statistics show.

“Real estate investment firms are buying ag land because they can get a better return than elsewhere,” observed Yakima County Assessor Dave Cook. “Will that continue? I don’t know.”

As farmers expand and diversify their operations, the number of total farms is declining. Riel said he has seen it first hand. The acreage the family now operates at one time was owned and operated by four individual farmers. Consolidation means more employees are needed to grow and harvest the crops.

According to the Employment Security Department, the number of farms involved in production agriculture has declined by more than 20 percent since 2004 to about 950. As the size of farming operations grow, the need for labor also is growing at a time when the available labor force is shrinking.

Firm figures are hard to come by, but estimates are that farmers experienced a 10 percent labor shortage last year.

Riel said diverse farms are better-suited to meet their labor needs because they can have work for crews to perform throughout the year. And while the premium on labor will increase, so will the need for a higher-skilled workforce.

Workers will need more training to deal with new technology in irrigation systems that involve electronic controls for starting irrigation and delivery of fertilizer.

“It takes a whole different skill set than it used to take with a high school kid on the end of a shovel,” Riel said.

“The challenge for the land grant universities and technical schools is to educate that group of people agriculture will need,” he added. “It used to be we could take a lot of folks out of high school. Now we would like to see someone with a post-secondary education.”

He said political leaders need to find answers in the form of immigration reform to provide farmers a legal workforce of adequate size to harvest the Valley’s crops.

“The fruit industry is highly vulnerable to shortages in labor. We have seen that over the last five to six years. People have been able to squeak by. What I tell people is we are one housing recovery away from a disaster in the Yakima Valley.”

Riel said a significant portion of the ag workforce used to work in the housing industry before it collapsed in 2007, leading to the national recession. Once the housing market returns to a solid footing, carpenters, drywall installers and landscapers who left construction to perform field work return to those trades, placing more pressure on the available labor force.

“We are teetering on the edge of a major issue. Farmers understand that. Not a lot of other folks do,” Riel said.

David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or dlester@yakimaherald.com.