Former Washington ag director outlines opportunities, challenges

Published online: Nov 24, 2013

GRANDVIEW, Wash.-Washington state's agricultural industry is strong, but still faces challenges, former state Department of Agriculture director Dan Newhouse says.

Newhouse, who stepped down as state ag director earlier this year, said he believes farmers' future is bright.

"We are a huge industry," he said. Washington has 40,000 farms that employ 160,000 people.

He said the state stands out from others, as it has an "ideal climate" and a large amount of land resources. In addition, its irrigation is on par with the rest of the country and superior to much of the world.

Washington, he said, can grow a wide variety of crops, as diverse as zucchini and tea. He also hinted that Washington's climate gives farmers opportunity to grow marijuana, now that the state has made marijuana use legal.

The industry is further improved, he said, by Washington's location. Bordering the Pacific Ocean, Washington can trade easily with important partners such as China and Japan.

"We have a lot of things going for us," Newhouse said.

Still, many challenges face agriculture, he said.

One of the biggest challenges, he said, concerns labor. He pointed out that labor prices are increasing and that employee availability is decreasing. America's failure to enact immigration reform has added to the problem.

And Newhouse said that he does not expect reform until next year, which is "unfortunate."

He is similarly disappointed by the Congress not passing a farm bill, but hopes that one will pass this year.

"The stars are lining up," he said of the prospects for passage.

Challenges dealing with water, land, regulations and taxes round out Newhouse's list of concerns. He is further concerned that state government, which cares more for the aerospace industry than the equally important agricultural industry, will not offer assistance.

"It is incumbent on each and every one of us to be advocates," he said to farmers in attendance at the Washington State Grape Society Meeting and Trade Show on Nov. 14.

He recommended that attendees tell visitors of their challenges when people from the Seattle area come to the east side of the state to tour wineries or buy boxes of tomatoes.

"Some people don't consider Washington state an agricultural state," he said. "Those people should be told the truth. It is."