We who do not grow food, but sell things to those who do, tend to yawn when given news like this – Washington’s 2015 apple crop, to be harvested soon, is predicted to be a mere 125.2 million boxes. That’s significantly smaller than the massive, record 140 million-box crop harvested a year ago, the crop big enough to cause fainting spells among those whose job was to sell it.
It’s a long hard road from prediction to bin, so pray for good weather, high quality and hearty appetites around the world. Hope, too, that the people who load ships don’t decide to take another extended Christmas break. Your neighbor’s livelihood depends on it. Quite possibly, so does yours.
Recently, some of those growers of food were slightly taken aback when local public officials suggested there might be a better use for their burned-over land between Miller and Walla Walla than fruit storage and packing sheds. I wondered what that might be. Condos? Restaurants? Maybe a hotel?
Those are all good things, but are they more economically productive than a fruit warehouse? I called Don Meseck, regional labor economist with the Department of Employment Security, and asked him how many people in our region worked at the crucial task of packing and shipping fruit – not growing, not harvesting, but the people who work in those concrete-walled facilities that seem to be everywhere from Peshastin east and from Oroville south. Are those jobs growing or shrinking in economic significance?
He gave me the numbers for a job category called “merchant wholesalers of nondurable goods,” which in this area are predominantly employees in fresh-fruit packing warehouses. In Chelan County alone, the warehouses employed 1,023 people in 2004 with a cumulative payroll of $29.96 million, constituting 2.81 percent of all employment countywide.
Jump to 2013, the latest figures available, and warehouse jobs had more than doubled, to 2,129. Payroll had risen at an even greater pace, hitting $77.6 million. Those jobs were now 5.37 percent of all county employment. Medical services, local government, agriculture and forestry (on the farm) and manufacturing have bigger cumulative payrolls. Still, those gray warehouses account for one job in 20 in Chelan County, and growing, and perhaps a higher percentage elsewhere. This is too great an impact to be dismissed in a search for neighborhood improvement.
In 2014 the apple industry commissioned a study of its economic impact on the state. The economists at Globalwise Inc. of Vancouver determined that the value of the 2012 apple crop, usually set around $2 billion on the farm, was $3.4 billion after packing. Total direct and indirect “induced business activity” was $7.5 billion. Apples produced 61,000 jobs statewide, $2 billion in wages, $254 million in direct and indirect state and local taxes and $384 million in federal taxes.
Those figures don’t include cherries or pears, but still are representative of a large statewide impact, and a huge local impact. It should be enough for all of us to take an interest when the forecast for the coming crop rolls out. We should hope, after a very tough year for many fruit growers, that the new year will bring something better.
In the past year, economic returns for apple growers were hit significantly by excess supply, poor fruit condition induced by an excess of summer heat, and perhaps worst of all, the selfish port shutdown that cost an estimated $95 million in export sales. Fruit not exported was sold domestically, affecting prices. Millions of boxes of fruit were dumped, unable to be sold.
Better times are ahead. We’re betting on it.
Reach Tracy Warner at 509-665-1163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.