Agricultural Exports from Washington

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 4/23/2020
  • Essay 21005

In Washington, a national leader in both farm production and international trade, agricultural exports played a key role in development from the early years of non-Indian settlement. As steamboats carried wheat down the Columbia River for shipment abroad and railroads boosted trade and brought in more settlers to farm, agricultural production and trade rose in tandem. Subsequent improvements in transportation, including the Columbia-Snake barge waterway, the interstate highway system, and container shipping, paralleled efforts to promote trade, such as public port districts collaborating with farmers on overseas shipping and commodity commissions opening new markets around the world. As a result, exports of potatoes, apples, wheat, and other crops grew into a multi-billion-dollar component of the state economy.

Crop Introductions and Early Exports

Apples, wheat, potatoes, and many other crops thrive in Washington, but none of the state's leading agricultural commodities or exports are native to the region. Most were introduced in the first half of the nineteenth century by early non-Native settlers. Some of the most important were first grown by the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), which from the 1820s had fur-trading outposts scattered across the future Washington. HBC traders established gardens and farms to feed themselves and, as crops and animals flourished, also began trading those products.

The first apples and the first wheat in Washington were grown in the 1820s at Fort Vancouver, the HBC's headquarters on the Columbia River in what is now Clark County. While large-scale apple orchards were decades away, wheat farming grew more quickly. In the 1830s, the HBC established commercial farms along the Cowlitz River near present-day Toledo and at Fort Nisqually on southern Puget Sound, raising wheat and other grains, peas, potatoes, sheep, and cattle. Hudson's Bay farm commodities became the first significant agricultural exports from Washington, shipped to then-Russian Alaska; then-Mexican San Francisco; and then-independent Hawaii.

The Hudson's Bay Company introduced wheat into Eastern Washington, where it would become the leading crop and a major factor promoting settlement and trade, by sending seed to Fort Colvile in Northeastern Washington near Kettle Falls. It did not take long for the first American settlers who began pouring into the Walla Walla Valley in the 1850s and 1860s to discover that the South Central Washington area was ideal for growing wheat.

Settlement there was boosted in the 1860s by gold-seekers pouring through on their way to newly discovered gold fields in what are now Idaho and Montana. As the miners' primary supply point, Walla Walla grew into a significant commercial center and for a time the largest city in Washington Territory. Wheat farming grew rapidly to meet demand, and civic leaders pressed for improvement of the Mullan Road, a military highway from Walla Walla to Montana, so farmers could more easily ship to the miners.

Cattle were also transported along the Mullan Road, in both directions. Walla Walla cattle ranchers, like wheat farmers, shipped their products eastward to the hungry miners. As cattle ranching expanded eastward from Walla Walla, ranchers also drove herds west along the Mullan Road to the Columbia River for shipment to market.

When the gold rush wound down and demand dropped, Walla Walla farmers and ranchers needed to find other markets for their wheat, cattle, and other products, along with the means of getting the products to those markets. The primary transportation route was the Columbia River, where steamboat service could be the first step in an international shipment. Steamers carried increasing quantities of Eastern Washington wheat to Portland, Oregon, for shipping to Europe. At first farmers had to haul their crops by wagon to the Columbia but, as early as 1863, Walla Walla business leaders were planning a railroad from their city to Wallula on the Columbia. Work began in 1872 and the line began operating in 1875, substantially increasing the ability of local farmers to export their crops.

Transcontinental Railroads

When transcontinental railroad lines arrived beginning in the 1880s, they provided a double boost to Washington's agricultural production. The railways provided easier access to vast new markets, making it possible to ship large quantities of wheat, beef, and other farm products to cities in the Midwest and East. And the railroads, by providing transportation and by aggressively marketing the region, encouraged new settlers to arrive, take up claims, and begin farming to help supply the demand from those new markets. While not a blessing to Walla Walla itself, which was bypassed by the direct lines and soon lost its status as the territory's largest city, the rail lines promoted settlement across large swathes of rural agricultural Washington as well as in the fast-growing cities on Puget Sound, where Seattle claimed the title of Washington's largest that it has held since.

With more markets and more farmers, wheat production expanded into the rolling hills of the Palouse region centered around Whitman County on the Idaho border. It took some time to find the wheat varieties best-suited to the region, but by the first years of the twentieth century the Palouse proved to be one of the most-productive areas anywhere for wheat. 

Agricultural rail shipments did not all head east to the rest of the country. Railroads also allowed Eastern Washington farmers to send products to port cities on Puget Sound, especially Tacoma and Seattle, for shipment to Europe or Asia. The Northern Pacific reached Tacoma first, in 1887. Three grain elevators rose there and wheat exports through Tacoma grew steadily, surpassing Portland by 1902.

In 1890 the first known shipload of wheat to sail from Seattle departed on a British ship bound for Ireland. In 1896, three years after the Great Northern Railway reached Seattle, a Japanese shipping company began regular steamship service between Seattle and Japan. The Great Northern soon launched its own shipping line, serving Japan, China, and the Philippines. With overseas destinations accessible to Washington farmers with just a single transfer on the docks of Seattle, the percentage of crops sold abroad grew. By 1900, more than half the wheat grown in Washington was exported, largely through Seattle and Tacoma, with the majority headed to Europe.

Apples and Irrigation

From the time they were introduced at Fort Vancouver in the 1820s, apples were grown in modest quantities on both sides of the Cascades, largely for local use. Shipments to California in the early 1850s during its gold rush marked the first export of Washington apples. However, not until extensive irrigation systems were developed in Central Washington did the state begin its rise to become the nation's top producer and exporter of apples.

Early pioneers in Central Washington, especially in the Wenatchee and Yakima valleys, recognized that the area's abundant sunshine, rich volcanic soil, and dry climate, which helped minimize disease and insect infection, were perfect for growing apples. However, that dry climate initially limited orchards to locations along or near banks of rivers and streams, from which irrigation water could easily be diverted. There were increasing efforts at large-scale irrigation, and by the 1890s, enough land was under irrigation for the first large commercial orchards to begin developing.

Irrigation increased dramatically in the first decade of the 1900s, especially after the Reclamation Act of 1902 provided federal assistance to irrigation systems, and apple production and exports followed. In the Columbia River Basin, acreage under irrigation jumped from half a million in 1900 to 2.3 million ten years later. That decade also saw the beginning of "apple fever" in Washington, with 1 million apple trees planted in 1908 alone (Schwantes, 211). Cherries, pears, and prunes also were planted in large quantities. By the 1920s, Washington had become the leading apple producer in the nation and was exporting some, although international sales would not become a major industry focus for several more decades.

Public Ports Promote Exports

As production of apples and other fruit and crops rose, the creation and growth of local public port districts gave Washington farmers new options for transporting and exporting growing yields. Railroads and shipping companies had made overseas export quicker and easier, but their monopoly position also allowed them to set rates that ate into any profit farmers could make. Progressive reformers across the state -- from Eastern Washington farmers whose ability to export was hampered by the railroad stranglehold, to urban reformers in Seattle who argued for public control of utilities -- joined forces to win passage of the Port District Act. That 1911 law authorized local voters to create independent government bodies to develop and operate harbor facilities (and later other infrastructure) to promote trade and economic growth.

The state's first two public ports, Seattle and Grays Harbor, were created later in 1911, and within 15 years Washington had 25 public ports (eventually rising to 75). Some managed small local docks, but 11 were deep-draft ports serving ocean-going ships. Among those, in addition to Seattle and Grays Harbor and Tacoma on salt water, were Vancouver and Longview on the lower Columbia. Timber products dominated early exports from these seaports, but from the start commissioners who ran Western Washington deep-draft ports encouraged growers from east of the mountains, along with local farmers, to export through their ports.

One of the Port of Seattle's early projects addressed the state's increasing production of apples and other fruit. At the Port's Bell Street headquarters it provided cold storage for fruit and produce, making it easier for orchardists to preserve their products when shipping through Seattle. Another agriculture-export project arose out of discussions between Port of Seattle officials and grain farmers from Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon. The Port built a grain elevator at Hanford Street on the Seattle waterfront, giving more farmers the option of shipping through Seattle rather than down the Columbia to Portland.

At the Port of Tacoma, a cold-storage facility was developed largely to accommodate local fruit growers and potato farmers. The first attempt to create a countywide port district had failed narrowly in 1912 due to opposition from rural Pierce County voters. To win their support for a second successful effort in 1918, port-district proponents argued that a public port would provide sufficient warehouse space and cold storage for area farmers, who had seen nearly a third of the 1917 apple and potato crops rot due to inadequate storage. The Port opened the promised cold-storage facility in 1931, a year after its grain elevator opened. Washington ports on the Columbia also developed grain elevators, including Longview in 1927 and Vancouver in 1934, giving Eastern Washington farmers more shipping options.

More Irrigation and Barge Transportation

As public ports in Western Washington helped boost exports from Eastern Washington farmers, a mammoth federal project was getting underway east of the mountains that would bring about perhaps the single biggest transformation in Washington agricultural output and trade. A series of dams built on the Columbia and Snake rivers beginning in the 1930s not only vastly increased the state's irrigated acreage and thus farm production, but also created a new transportation system, an inland barge waterway that would eventually ship much of the state's wheat and other farm products. The dams also generated inexpensive electric power for much of the Northwest.

The original impetus behind the project was the longtime dream of irrigating the fertile but arid Central Washington sagebrush desert by building a huge dam on the Columbia at Grand Coulee. That dream became a reality as part of public works efforts to combat the Great Depression, with work beginning in 1933. Work also began that year on Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia. It was designed to generate electricity, but thanks to farmers and others in the Inland Empire Waterways Association (later the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association), the federal government agreed to include locks at Bonneville and subsequent dams on the Columbia and Snake, making large-scale shipping by barge possible. In 1938, when locks opened at Bonneville, more freight moved along the middle Columbia than had in the previous two decades. Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1941, but by that point irrigation work was put on hold by World War II.

Once the war ended, work proceeded on both the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project and the barge waterway. Irrigation water began flowing in 1948, with the main system of canals completed three years later. The substantial increase in irrigated acreage led to corresponding growth in production. Wheat expanded across the Columbia Basin, which was previously too dry for farming but proved remarkably fertile when watered, leading to record-setting yields. Many other crops also prospered on the more than half a million acres eventually irrigated by the project.

One in particular stands out for the impact on Washington agriculture and trade made by irrigating the Columbia Basin -- the potato. Potatoes had long been grown in the state, including in the Skagit Valley of Northwest Washington, which provides perfect growing conditions and remains a center of production. But the spud began its rise to one of the state's top crops and exports after Columbia Basin irrigation let potato growers take advantage of the region's fertile volcanic soil and long growing season. As with wheat and other crops, the area, when watered, was incredibly productive. With average yields of 30 tons an acre, twice the national average, Washington eventually became the nation's No. 2 potato producer, behind neighboring Idaho. And potatoes, in the form of french fries, would become the state's leading land-based agricultural export.

While farmers in North Central Washington benefited from increased irrigation provided by the dams, those in the South Central and Southeastern areas of the state also saw another benefit -- gradual extension of the Columbia-Snake barge waterway. Starting in 1947, when work began on McNary Dam on the Columbia a short distance below its junction with the Snake, and continuing into the 1970s, a total of three more dams on the Columbia and four on the Snake extended the waterway all the way to Lewiston, Idaho. In Washington, public port districts along the river, including Kennewick, Pasco, Walla Walla, and Whitman County, developed barge terminals, grain elevators, and other infrastructure to facilitate shipment of wheat and other products.

The rise in barge transportation along the river waterway coincided with another change in shipping grain. Until World War II, most wheat had been loaded into burlap sacks for shipment, but as the cost of that method rose, shippers switched to bulk loading directly from grain elevators to barges along the river, and to bulk-cargo ships at seaports.   

Farm Products on the Highways

The waterway was not the only enhanced transportation system developed in the post-war years. That era saw huge expansion of the national highway system and a resulting increase in hauling of cargo by truck. Federal legislation in 1956 creating what became the Interstate Highway System was the major factor, but in Washington as elsewhere significant highway projects got underway before that.

One of importance to the agriculture industry was the completion in 1951 of a highway, SR 12, over White Pass, providing a direct trucking connection between producers in the Yakima Valley and food processors in Chehalis and Centralia in Southwest Washington. Then when the freeway that became Interstate 5 was built between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s it provided easy truck transportation onward for the produce frozen or canned in Chehalis and Centralia.

Beyond making it easier to get farm products to ports for shipment overseas, the expanding highway network made it easier for Washington growers to ship to markets directly accessible by road -- not just within the country, but also to the two nations directly linked to the U.S. by road, Canada and Mexico, both of which number among the state's top agricultural-export partners.

Boosting Trade

As irrigation made astonishing increases in production possible, and highways, railroads, and rivers transported that production, another factor played a role in expanding agricultural trade: the intensification and increasing coordination of efforts to promote Washington's farm products around the world. As early as the 1920s, producers of some crops had joined forces in trade groups or commissions, some created by the state government, to promote and market products to other parts of the nation and world. In the 1950s, as farmers worked to market their growing production, the state legislature authorized the department of agriculture to establish commodity commissions to promote specific commodities.

Commissions played key roles in the 1950s and 1960s in introducing Washington agriculture to more of the world and laying the groundwork for growth in what became the state's two biggest land-based agricultural exports. The apple commission's early efforts to market fresh apples abroad created demand in developing countries not just for apples but for other fresh Washington fruit. And the state's wheat industry and commission were leaders nationally in recognizing that booming economies in countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan would lead to demand for more wheat products.

Marketing was helped by the fact that the soft white wheat making up the bulk of Washington production is particularly suited to making both Asian noodles and traditional Middle Eastern breads and baked goods. With growers and exporters focusing on these growing markets, in the 1950s Asia and the Middle East surpassed Europe as top overseas destinations for Washington wheat.

Besides undertaking trade missions to other countries, commodity groups also host visitors from those countries, some seeing the U.S. for the first time. "As a result, farmers and agribusinesses throughout Washington are more globally aware than their counterparts in most other states. Many have traveled abroad, and many have hosted their foreign counterparts on their farms or in their firms" (O'Rourke).

There are now more than 20 commodity commissions, funded by assessments on the commodity producers, which continue to play a significant role in promoting agricultural exports.

Exports in Containers

Containerization -- the game-changing practice of hauling cargo in standardized, stackable metal containers that can be rapidly transferred between trucks, trains, and ships -- significantly boosted Washington agricultural exports when it reached the state in the 1960s. The Port of Seattle was the first in Washington to invest in the substantial infrastructure necessary for container terminals, and was rewarded with a huge increase in trade of all kinds, imports and exports, over the next decades. The Port of Tacoma opened its first container terminal in 1970 and also saw large jumps in trade.

Containers carry all sorts of cargo and the majority of containers passing through Washington ports hold manufactured goods and other imports from Asia. But container shipping further expedited agricultural exports, as containers loaded near where crops were grown or processed could travel by road and/or rail and then ship all the way to their ultimate overseas destinations, and many containers shipped from Washington to Asia carried farm products. Among the factors making Seattle and Tacoma leading container ports was the easy access that Interstate 90 provided for container trucks carrying Eastern Washington products to those ports.

Containers can also be shipped by barge, and in 1976 the Port of Pasco opened the first container terminal on the upper Columbia River, allowing farmers to ship containers by barge to seaports where container ships awaited. Within five years Pasco was shipping 2,000 containers annually. The Port also began shipping large quantities of hay to Japan in 1979.

Into the Twenty-first Century

Strong in the early 1970s, growth in Washington farm exports slowed at decade's end due to softening worldwide demand. Booming economies in Latin America and Asia from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s again increased exports.

By then China, the world's largest single market, was again available to U.S. producers, with Washington farmers particularly well-positioned to sell there, due to historical ties and shorter shipping distances from Washington ports. The U.S. had cut ties, including trade, with China after a Communist government came to power in 1949. Limited trade resumed in 1972, with full restoration of diplomatic relations in 1979. That year Seattle was the first port of call for the first ship from mainland China to visit the U.S. in 30 years. The cargo it loaded at the Port of Seattle's Pier 86 grain terminal was corn from the Midwest, but it was not long before in-state agricultural products were also making their way to the huge new market.

It was another 15 years before China began importing Washington apples in the summer of 1994. That same year, Japan, which had barred U.S. fruit since the early 1970s, also resumed importing. Helping state orchardists, the Port of Seattle had just tripled its cold-storage capacity at Terminal 91 to accommodate the growing apple trade. That facility was later devoted to other use but, with Washington by far the national leader in apple production, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma continued to handle most of the country's containerized apple exports, largely in refrigerated containers.

Fluctuations in agricultural exports continued to and beyond the turn of the century, as economic conditions changed around the world. Through the ups and downs, exports remained central not just to agriculture-industry profits but also to Washington's overall economy. Exporting requires substantial work and expenditure. Growers have to pack products to survive a long journey; ensure they comply with each destination's quality, safety, labeling, and other requirements; deal with currency exchanges, tariffs, and customs; and more, requiring "specialized assistance of banks, insurance companies, transportation agencies, freight forwarders, customs agents, etc." (O'Rourke). Much of that work is done in-state, especially in Seattle and Tacoma, to the benefit of many local businesses.

Leading Exports

In 2018, according to Washington State Department of Agriculture statistics, the state exported $6.7 billion worth of food and agricultural products to other countries. Those statistics include fish and seafood from aquaculture (otherwise outside the scope of this article) and indeed those products constitute Washington's top "agricultural" export as defined by the department, although aquaculture does not make the overall top-10 list of commodities produced in the state. With seafood included, the department lists Canada as the state's top export destination, followed in order by Japan, China, South Korea, and Mexico.

Of land-based agricultural products, frozen french fries were the state's top export in 2018, with a value of nearly $800 million. That french fries, not fresh potatoes, are the big export reflects the fact that some 90 percent of the potato crop is processed in-state, mostly into frozen fries. Nearly two-thirds of the exported french fries went to Japan, with China and South Korea second and third on the list.

Close behind at $760 million worth of exports were apples. In total production value apples are Washington's top crop, and the state is the leading producer and leading exporter of apples in the country. Apples rank behind potato products in export value because processing potatoes into frozen french fries creates "value-added" (i.e. more expensive) products. In contrast, the 30 percent of the apple crop exported is mostly fresh fruit, a tribute to marketing the value of fresh Washington apples and advances over the years in cold storage and refrigerated shipping. India was the top destination for apples, followed by Mexico and Canada.

The third most-valuable land-based agricultural export was hay, worth $504 million in 2018. Those exports accounted for nearly all the hay produced for sale in Washington, which overall was the state's 6th-ranked crop, totaling $516 million. The leading buyers of Washington hay were Japan, South Korea, and China.

Rounding out the top four was wheat, with $463 million in 2018 exports. In overall production wheat is the state's third-most valuable crop, and Washington is among the leading states in wheat production and especially exports. More than 85 percent of the state's crop is exported, compared to 50 percent nationally, with Washington's seaports and Columbia-Snake waterway playing a big role. The waterway is the leading wheat transport corridor in the country, shipping 40 percent of all U.S. wheat exports, much of that grown in Washington.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum. 


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