Agriculture Growing New Business and Connections Between Washington and Asia: Part I

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by SEAN CONNELL
Washington's wealth of fertile land has made the state an attractive trading partner for Asian markets [Image: Open Source]

With Starbucks Coffee increasingly ubiquitous in Asia—you can now order their espressos and lattes in sixteen Asian markets ranging from New Zealand to Cambodia to India—coffee has become nearly synonymous with Seattle. While Seattle-style coffee shops have become one of the Pacific Northwest’s hottest culinary and cultural exports, a significant amount of the coffee they serve and sell is grown in Asia, including in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In many ways, this is a metaphor for agriculture in Washington State’s economic relations with Asia, a rich and fertile area that continues to evolve and create new interconnections across the Pacific.

Agriculture and natural resources have historically been at the center of Washington’s connections with Asia, and continue to grow in importance for the economies of both. In 2015, Washington exported a combined $10.3 billion in agriculture and food manufacturing goods to Asia, accounting for 23 percent of the state’s goods exported to the region, ranking second only to aerospace and transportation equipment. Two-thirds of Washington’s agriculture exports go to Asia, where four of the state’s top five agriculture export markets are located. Washington has been the leading exporter among US states of agricultural products and livestock to Asia during seven of the last ten years, and is the second largest exporter after California of food manufacturing goods to Asia, according to data from the US Department of Commerce’s  International Trade Administration. This total includes forestry and fishery products, which for more than a century have been stalwarts of Washington-Asia trade.  

Leading exports from Washington to Asia include apples and other fruits, wheat (70 percent of Washington’s wheat exports went to Asia in 2010), vegetables including potatoes and onions, dairy products, and hay and feed. The importance of these products has often positioned Washington in the cross-fire of US-Asia agriculture trade disputes, from export restrictions placed on Washington apples treated with the pesticide alar to the closing of Asian markets to US beef exports in December 2003 following the discovery of a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a Washington cow. The value of Asian markets to Washington farmers, particularly in these sectors, is reflected in the very active international marketing program led by the Washington Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and commodity groups including the Washington State Potato Commission and Northwest Horticultural Council, among others. WSDA maintains in-market representation in Japan, South Korea, China, and Vietnam, and in recent years has conducted multiple trade and buyers missions to these countries, along with India, Myanmar, and other markets.

 As consumer tastes and purchasing power in Asia evolve, these export stalwarts have been joined by an increasing number of specialty crops. For example, Washington is the largest US producer of cherries, and cherry exports to Asia have grown exponentially in recent years, including to China, Taiwan, and South Korea. Cherry exports to Korea from Washington reached $44 million in 2015, a 23 percent increase from 2012 when the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement eliminated Korea’s tariff on US cherries, making them an important success story of the agreement. While Asia has long been an important destination for Washington-caught fish and shellfish, geoduck has become one of the state’s most rapidly growing exports to Asia, at a value of $74 million to China and Hong Kong alone in 2014. Timothy hay grown in the Kittitas Valley around Ellensburg has long been prized by Japanese race horse breeders, and 90 percent of the annual crop is exported to Japan, China, and Korea. Washington has become a leader in organically-grown produce, and recently negotiated organics equivalency agreements between the United States and markets including Japan and Korea offer significant new opportunities.

These impressive trade statistics only scratch the surface of a much deeper and broadening set of interconnections linking agriculture in Asia and Washington. Part II of this series will explore these connections in more detail, with an eye towards where they may be leading agricultural ties moving forward.

Sean Connell is a guest contributor to Asia Matters for America. He is employed by the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (Washington), and is a former Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. This is an ongoing, multi-part series on the impacts and interrelationships between Washington State and the Asia-Pacific region. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any organization with which the author is affiliated.