It’s no secret that when agriculture is doing well, the Yakima Valley thrives.
Not surprisingly, a banner crop year, led by a particularly strong cherry harvest, gave the local economy a boost — all the way to No. 1 in the nation in job growth for the second quarter of last year, according to data released this week by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A poor cherry crop in 2011, blamed on weather conditions, meant the county had nowhere to go but up in 2012.
“You’re comparing it to a mediocre year, so when you get a good year, it will look especially good,” said Don Meseck, regional economist with the state Employee Security Department.
Yakima County reported 110,500 jobs for the April through June quarter of 2012. The 8.2 percent increase compared to the year-earlier quarter was well above the national average of 1.8 percent and the highest out of the 328 largest counties included in the ranking.
The federal data, known as the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, is based on information submitted by companies when they pay federal unemployment insurance.
Agriculture is included in the natural resources and mining category, which saw 8,646 more jobs in that period than the previous year.
Despite long-standing efforts to diversify the Yakima Valley economy, the record quarter demonstrates that agriculture is king in the county. “It’s a testament to our ag-based economy,” said David McFadden, president of New Vision, the county’s economic development arm.
While nonagricultural job growth has been flat for most of the year, preliminary agricultural job data have shown solid increases month after month, Meseck added.
Between 22 percent and 25 percent of all county jobs are in agriculture.
“Yakima (County) is unusual,” Meseck said. “It has such a large proportion of jobs in agriculture.”
Wages, however, did not keep up with the pace of job growth. The average weekly wage in Yakima County for 2012 second quarter was $617, a 1.1 percent increase. The increase put the county 167th out of 328 counties, just below the median.
The lower wages are driven by the seasonal nature of ag employment.
“The law of averages applies,” McFadden said.
Still, the strong job growth provides a bit of positive news.
“It helps raise our image as a (good) business location,” McFadden said.
The employment growth likely trickled down to retail sales, providing much-needed revenue for the county and its municipalities.
According to the state Department of Revenue, Yakima County had nearly $743 million in taxable retail sales during the second quarter of 2012, a 9 percent increase over the 2011 quarter.
With preliminary agricultural employment figures during the third quarter of 2012 showing healthy increases due to a strong apple harvest, Meseck expects that Yakima County will fare well when the next quarter’s data is released.
He stopped short of saying that Yakima County could again take the No. 1 spot but said, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see us in the top 10.”