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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Earth to Seattle! Farms are important, too

Kate Riley Seattle Times

T he farmer rose from his seat, his smile crinkling skin weathered by wind and 300 days of Columbia Basin sunshine a year. You don’t see that in Seattle outside of tanning-bed devotees or snowbirds.

“How do you think we can get people in Seattle to understand what we do?” he asked me and two other journalists on a media panel in Franklin County earlier this month. Representing a newspaper based in the state’s bluest county, I was expecting a rough reception from farmers in one of the reddest counties.

Instead, what I found at the Pasco Farm Forum was this man’s own frustration with the urban-rural gap in this state — one shared by many in the industry.

Sure, the farmers I ate lunch with were chagrined over the election of Washington’s Democratic governor-at-least-for-now. They’re rooting for a Chelan County judge to order a revote in the squeaky-tight race.

Politics aside, these farmers are troubled with the dissonance that plagues their relationship with their city-dwelling brethren. They feed their urban neighbors, the rest of the country and parts of the world. They grow steak for their grills, wheat for their noodles and grapes for their wine, but they can’t seem to get their richer, faster-paced urban neighbors to slow down enough to listen to what agriculture needs to stay strong in Washington state.

The Boeing 7E7 got a special session of the Legislature in 2003, fitting for the state’s largest industry. But when it comes to the agriculture that generates about 13 percent of Washington’s gross state product, urban Democrats seem not only to take agriculture for granted but throw obstacles up. They are hardened to the need for water solutions for thirsty crops and jack up the minimum wage (at $7.35 an hour the highest in the nation), which squeezes farm businesses — price-takers in global markets with competitors that pay just a fraction.

After more than a century, the asparagus industry is dying with the decision of processors to close all three production lines, a casualty of globalization. And Washington apples are facing daunting global competition, especially from a burgeoning industry in China. During Washington’s harvest, I noticed my neighborhood Costco had more apples from Chile than from just over the Cascades.

The Washington State Horticultural Association and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission are trying to tell the tree-fruit industry’s story. They are expected to release a study soon detailing the full economic impact of the tree-fruit industry.

The industry generates about $6 billion in economic value and more than 140,000 jobs, the study says. The association argues it has a greater impact on the state’s economy than biotechnology, which now employs 19,300 and produces $1.8 billion in revenues. The point?

“The Legislature would not consider changes to the tax code, transportation rules or environmental standards without first considering their effect upon economic engines like Boeing or Microsoft,” says Jim Hazen, executive director of the association. “Neither should policymakers adopt new laws and rules without considering their impact upon an industry that is the state’s second-largest employer and among the top 10 revenue generators.”

One city-slicker who has bridged the gap is U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. Rural Washington’s collective heart sank when this former dot-com executive defeated Republican Slade Gorton in 2000. How could this intense techie with her dark urban suits and sleek hairstyle replace Gorton’s down-home affinity for the state’s oldest industry?

But Cantwell has embraced agriculture issues. Part sentimentality for her mother’s agricultural roots and part attraction to the high-tech promise of agricultural research, Cantwell has helped get dried peas into Cuba, fresh potatoes back into Mexico and expanded Washington’s winery access to British Columbia. She’s helped secure money for mechanizing agriculture production and for studies of the proposed Black Rock reservoir and ways for farmers to get access to water as the Odessa Aquifer dries.

The senator shares farmers’ frustrations with the urban blind spot to agriculture, noting she reminded participants at a recent Seattle chamber discussion on biotechnology that agriculture research should be considered, too. “If you care about jobs in Washington, you need to care about agriculture,” Cantwell said.

She’s right. And now that both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion all are controlled by Democrats, lawmakers have a larger responsibility to consider not only how their policies and investments affect the state’s oldest industry, but how they help it.

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