It would be an understatement to say 2020 is a tough year. Employment in all economic sectors around the state, except for health care, has cratered. There continue to be heroic efforts to make sure people have food, shelter and the other supplies basic to life and health. Much of the heavy lifting continues to be done by the people who grow the food and those who move it to where it needs to be. The governor, Legislature and local elected officials throughout the state need to focus on making sure that these essential goods can continue to move in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.
Besides providing the necessities of life, our state’s growers provide tens of thousands of jobs and, with our ports, our best chance to recover economically. With more than 39,000 farms and ranches spread throughout the state, Washington state agriculture is found in every corner of the state and makes up 12% of the state’s overall economy.
Equally important to the state and critical to the success of the state’s farmers is the health of Washington’s ports. Sea and river port gateways are a fundamental part of the agriculture industry’s supply chain, and ability to export and compete in a global market.
According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the state is the third largest exporter of agricultural products in the U.S. — with more than $6.7 billion in food and agricultural products exported through Washington ports.
Equally important, the Northwest Seaport Alliance, involving the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, supports more than 58,000 jobs throughout the state. Port-related jobs are some of the highest paid blue-collar jobs in the state. Port workers, truckers, marine-terminal operators and other supply-chain entities have managed to weather the health crisis in a safe and effective manner.
Agriculture and ports are partners, competing in an international marketplace. Their past success cannot be taken for granted. Others around the world want to attract cargo away from our ports. Farmers in other states and countries want to be the go-to supplier of apples, cherries, potatoes and hay. Due to the aggressive policies and actions of other ports, state and national governments, we have seen a drop in the NW Seaport Alliance port market share over time.
So, what can the state do to ensure that we continue to be competitive?
First, fix the failing infrastructure that prevents marine terminals from operating efficiently. The most glaring failure currently is the West Seattle Bridge. Mitigating the effects of the closure of the high bridge and prioritizing freight on the lower is essential. Obviously, the long-term solution is either repairing or rebuilding this regional economic asset.
Second, work with industry and labor to make sure the regulatory environment is effective and reasonable. Policies should take a holistic approach, requiring not just environmental benefits, but also incentivizing the private sector to adapt and grow. As an example, the partnership between the NW Seaport Alliance and their customers has yielded huge reductions in emissions in particulate matter and greenhouse-gas reductions. More is being done.
Finally, make agriculture and ports a centerpiece of economic recovery. When the virus is contained and we need to jump-start the economy, agriculture and port related businesses will be essential partners in that effort.