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How much does farming figure into the local economy? New study sheds some light

Hart Hodges listens to a question from the audience during a presentation of a report analyzing the Whatcom County Agribusiness sector. Hodges, director at the Center for Economic and Business Research for Western Washington University, presented the report during a farm tour event near Enfield Farms on Thursday, Aug. 24.
Hart Hodges listens to a question from the audience during a presentation of a report analyzing the Whatcom County Agribusiness sector. Hodges, director at the Center for Economic and Business Research for Western Washington University, presented the report during a farm tour event near Enfield Farms on Thursday, Aug. 24. dgallagher@bhamherald.com

Whatcom County’s agriculture industry has a significant and growing impact on the local economy, according to a new report analyzing the industry.

8,405 estimated number of jobs farming contributes to Whatcom County.

The Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University put the report together for the Whatcom Business Alliance.

The study estimates that farming contributes 8,405 jobs to the local economy, which is about 8 percent of total employment in the county.

In terms of agribusiness – farm related jobs and food manufacturing – the total estimate is 7,943, paying $276 million in annual wages.

Coming up with the job number estimates was difficult because of the many variables involved in agriculture jobs. Seasonality makes a huge difference: Direct year-round farming jobs in Whatcom County is estimated to be 3,300, but the number of jobs jumps to more than 9,000 during the peak July harvest.

There is a lot of overlap when it comes to pinning down agriculture jobs, said Hart Hodges, director at the business research center. How much is food manufacturing related to the products that come from local farms? What about transportation?

“The challenge for us was who to count,” Hodges said, noting the center settled on a specific set of boundaries to determine which jobs fell in the agribusiness category.

The number of jobs in farm-related businesses is on the rise. The biggest area of growth was in food manufacturing, which was up 7 percent in the past 12 months, said James McCafferty, a director at CEBR who also worked on the report.

In doing the study for the jobs numbers, researchers came across a variety of data that gives a better picture of the economic engine of local agriculture. It turns out the top 10 percent of farms in terms of size produce 90 percent of the sales.

However, it appears having both small and large farms in the county is important to the overall industry, according to the report. The large farms provide support for the infrastructure of the processing and distribution companies, which benefits the small farms. The small farms provide a face for local residents through farmers markets and selling directly to local restaurants through Community Supported Agriculture.

“So while the small farms do not add a significant amount to the employment figures or farmgate revenue numbers, they play critically important roles,” the report concluded.

When it comes to what Whatcom County farm products are sold, dairy continues to dominate, accounting for 54 percent of all sales. Fruit, particularly berries, account for 22 percent of sales.

Details of the report can be found on the WBA website.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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