The Tri-Cities’ #1 Export May Surprise You
Exporting American agricultural goods has been a long-running success story, with a trade surplus in agricultural goods even today. Early on, our agricultural exports focused on raw goods such as the tobacco exported by the pilgrims. But before long, American ingenuity kicked in and we started shipping more processed and higher value agricultural goods. Why do I bring this up? Due to our proximity to world markets, and our almost ideal growing conditions for many high-value crops, Washington State – and the Columbia Basin in particular – is not only a leader but a star when it comes to international agricultural trade.
Several years ago, I was Chair of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce where, naturally, I focused on shedding light on the agricultural economy in our area. During one meeting, I asked if anyone knew what our number one export is. Many were quick to think of wheat which, while very important (especially for our friends in the Palouse), is not a major crop in our area. Others thought of apples. But despite the apple industry’s shift from Wenatchee and Yakima toward the Columbia Basin, it is still not our top export. Before long – and with a quizzical look – someone said, “potatoes.” My answer? Kind of. The largest agricultural export from this area is actually french fries!
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Interestingly, the largest agricultural export from Washington State as a whole is seafood. However, this is a little misleading because although we have a strong seafood industry in Western Washington, quite a bit of the fish and seafood processed on the west side is actually caught in Canadian waters. In 2nd place, frozen french fries (and tater tots!) account for about $883 million in export value from Washington State, all of which comes from the Columbia Basin. That exceeds the export value of apples by about $150 million and wheat by almost $300 million.
The main reason french fries are almost a billion dollars in export value is that they are sold as a finished product. Our local processors are taking potatoes worth about $170 million and turning them into frozen potato products worth approximately $883 million. With our ideal growing conditions, availability of water, proximity to ports, and a little ingenuity, we are able to make and ship the best french fries around the world while providing year-round jobs to support our local economy.
Senior Agricultural Officer, Community First Bank