As lawmakers in Washington D.C. deliberate the outcome of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, Washington has an opportunity to reflect on the state of its own current trade policies. Similar to what’s being debated on the federal level, here in Washington, we must stay mindful of the influence today’s policies will have on future growth and investment.
Unlike the U.S. economy as a whole, the economic fabric of Washington is overwhelmingly trade-dependent, with nearly half of our workforce affiliated directly or indirectly with the trade sector. The most recent Census data shows agriculture accounts for 13 percent of Washington’s economy, and about one third of our state’s agriculture commodities are exported — 75 percent of which is sold to Asian markets.
Figures from last year show the rate of exports for agricultural commodities including soybeans and corn has risen, in addition to manufacturing products including airplane parts and engines; as has the demand for greater port capacity to bring these products to market.
Securing our footing as a dominant trade player, both domestically and internationally, will enable the state to pass on this prosperous agriculture market to the next generation of farmers. But we must drive private investment and promote a regulatory environment that encourages businesses to settle here, and stay here. We can do this, most effectively, by investing in infrastructure — including greater port capacity and a vigorous rail network.
For Washington’s agriculture community, last year’s rail delay debacle during key harvesting periods for grain and other products demonstrated the urgent need to upgrade our rail system. Farmers across the state shouldered tremendous financial blows, some devastating — because rail lines were too backlogged to bring millions of dollars’ worth of grain, potatoes and apples to ports like Seattle and Tacoma, where they were intended for overseas markets.
Investment that comes with the export terminals proposed in Bellingham and Longview will provide the additional shipping capacity we need to bring this large volume of products market, and further expand trading prospects for our state’s agriculture industry. The terminals will not be exclusive to coal exports; they will serve as a channel for all types of goods, including agriculture.
Moreover, as we look for ways to grow our transportation infrastructure, we should look to those communities with stagnant job growth; the Grays Harbor area, Walla Walla and Cowlitz counties in particular have been slow to rebound this past year. Coincidentally, these areas have a higher percentage of agriculture workers, including food processors of dairy, fruits, vegetables and beef, and would stand to benefit tremendously by a more expansive rail network.
Many of the jobs that will be indirectly created as a result of these ports’ development will be within the agriculture community, or positively influence farmers’ ability to do business — whether it’s train conductors, truck drivers or dock operators who load our products onto barges.
For a long time, the agriculture community has been an ardent supporter of developing trade in Washington — in many ways, it’s the gateway to our livelihood. Hopefully, the discussions surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal will bring about much-needed changes in the way we approach and encourage expanded trade here in Washington.
John Stuhlmiller is CEO of the Washington Farm Bureau.