Agriculture is an important industry for the state of Washington, but residents on the west side of the state and in other urban areas don’t always understand its role.
PULLMAN, Wash. — Residents of Washington often refer to the divide between the western and eastern sides of the state as more than just geographic. The Cascade Mountains create a topographic separation, but it goes deeper: rural vs. urban, agriculture vs. industry, conservative vs. liberal.
It’s in Whitman County, in the southeastern corner of the state, where my part of this story starts. Both of my parents grew up in Pullman, their fathers professors at Washington State University. My mom’s sister married a farmer, so I spent part of my summers growing up riding horses, combines, and farm trucks with my cousins.
My uncle, Bill Ryan, operates a farm and ranch with his brother, Gary, 20 minutes outside of Pullman in the rolling wheat fields referred to as the Palouse. They farm over 3,700 acres (owned and leased) and have over 14,000 acres for their cattle operation with a crew of five men. The rolling hills are fertile ground for wheat, and the Snake River canyons shelter cattle in the winter.
Like many farmers in the area, the Ryans have been harvesting wheat from the hills for many generations, Bill and Gary are fifth generation farmers on their land. The house where their parents still live was built in 1910.
Washington State is rich in crops and resources, the highest producer of many crops including raspberries, apples, and hops, the second largest producer of potatoes, and boasts the county (Whitman) that produces the most wheat in the nation.
Peter Goldmark, the Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, has a ranch in Okanogan County that also focuses on cattle and wheat. The Palouse and Okanogan regions couldn’t be more different in terms of terrain, rainfall, and soil type, but the issues farmers in ranchers face in both regions are the same. Goldmark said domestic policy, and its implications, is the biggest issue for agriculture.
Because of the divide between east and west, many people on the west side of the state and other urban areas don’t understand agriculture or its political issues. The issues in agriculture are numerous, including property rights, water quality and access, interest rates, immigration, cost of labor, and much more.
“The fact that most of the population lives in urban areas and is unfamiliar with agriculture leads to a complete disconnect between the policy and the public understanding. The public is often unsympathetic to farmers,” Goldmark said.
When I spoke to Steve Appel, former President of the Washington State Farm Bureau for 17 years, he said, “[Western Washingtonians] see their world and it’s so totally different than the world we live in that there’s going to be a clash there. King County, Pierce County, and Thurston County can outvote the rest of the state.”
Because of this, people involved in agriculture in Washington must also educate the general population about how they benefit the state and what issues they face. Additionally, they often pay out of pocket to meet state requirements.
“We do many things that don’t improve our profitability, but we spend money to defend ourselves. It feels like guilty until proven innocent,” said Ryan.
Additionally, elections for state offices, such as the House and governor, have an impact on agriculture. Appel put more weight on the race for governor, because of the appointments that individual makes. These appointed positions have a huge impact on regulations, their interpretation, and enforcement.
“If I had to chose one or the other that I could magically wave my wand and change, I would change the governor. We could still have the democratic legislature. In fact, I can make the argument that that’s not a bad way to go because you have some balance going on, which we have not had for years,” he explained.
This balance is important in a state that’s diverse and for an industry that typically benefits from the policies of more conservative governing bodies.
“In Washington, agriculture is probably in the top five in economic impact. It is a strong, direct economic resource and a local source of food,” Goldmark said. “The food produced in Washington is amongst the highest quality produced in the world.”
State residents enjoy a bounty year-round, from fruits and vegetables to grains or even meat. And we have farmers and ranchers around the state to thank for it.
I was lucky enough to get a taste for what hard work really means as a child and later as a college student living in Pullman. The few who farm and ranch, like my uncle with his cattle and wheat, work year round. Wheat planting and harvest cycles transition to cattle ranching months.
“Farming is really hard work,” said Goldmark. “It requires skill, hard work, and luck with dryland crops, like wheat, especially.”
Farming and ranching is only highly profitable for agribusinesses — large corporations that have capital to leverage.
“There is a lot of agribusiness in Washington, including the largest potato producers and processors and much of the wine industry. These are huge consortiums and the aspects of the family-run farms are absent,” Goldmark said.
Farming and ranching operations often require financing to survive and operation costs often eat up most of the revenue farms generate. The capital available to agribusinesses is part of the reason they continue to expand and grow.
“Nearly every operation has borrowed capital for either land acquisition or operating capital,” Goldmark stated.
Ryan is no exception. “The first time we took out an operating loan, the banker told us, ‘You can borrow this money and reinvest it in anything and make an easy return on it. Unfortunately agriculture isn’t one of those,’” Ryan said. “They figure us at like a 2 or 3% return, when most people would borrow that and invest, and come back with a 15% return.”
The values associated with farming were an important element for all three of the men I talked to. As part of multi-generational farms, each learned from an early age about hard work, but they also valued the emphasis on family. Appel’s family has been in the area since the late 1800s. He said that was true of most farms in the region — such as Goldmark’s.
“The central themes in my life have been family and agriculture. Values that I learned as a child were affirmed raising a family of five children.
My sons are the third generation to run our ranch. I learned as a child to be an active participant in all activities. That learning process is essential for youth,” Goldmark said.
A recently tabled piece of federal legislation, the Child Labor Act, could have impacted the role children under 16 play on farms. The proposed legislation would have restricted family farm operations by prohibiting those under 16 from participating in common practices on a farm or ranch.
The help of all generations is necessary for making operations run more smoothly, and, as Goldmark attests, it’s also a way to instill values and spend time together as a family.
Ryan agrees. “Simple tasks make them feel like they’ve accomplished a lot and like their helping adults. It really builds their self-confidence, pride in their work, and their work ethic,” Ryan said.
Later he added, “It’s a wonderful life. It’s just not a good living. It’s a great way to raise a family because while I was gone and working so much, some of the time the kids could come with me. That’s when I got to see them. That’s hard to do if you’re not self-employed.”
It’s legislation like this, though well-intentioned, that is detrimental to farming and illuminates the difference between east and west in Washington.
“I still to this day can’t think of what else I’d do. I could never think of anything else. Whenever I was away I just wanted to be here,” Ryan said.