By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- The dairy industry produces $5.2 billion in economic benefit to Washington state annually, an increase of $893 million between 2006 and 2011.
Shannon Neibergs, Washington State University Extension economic specialist and associate professor, said that benefit comes through jobs, farm equipment purchases, land leases and acquisitions, feed and seed purchases and taxes.
Neibergs conducted the "Economic Contribution Analysis of Washington Dairy Farms and Dairy Processing" with WSU assistant professor Michael Brady.
"This was the first comprehensive economic study on Washington's milk production and related activities," said Dan Wood, director of government relations for the Washington State Dairy Federation. "It's impressive that it has more than a $5 billion impact. ... Policy decisions are being made at the state and local levels, and public officials need to know the value of dairy and the jobs created.
"Dairy farms play a much larger role in the state's economy than most people realize," he said.
The Washington Farm Bureau estimates the economic impact of all agricultural sectors at $46 billion, providing about 13 percent of the state's economy and 160,000 jobs.
The study reported that numbers of dairies and cows continue to steadily decline in Western Washington. Snohomish, Skagit, Lewis and Thurston counties saw double-digit percentage losses. The counties that showed an increase in cow numbers are Yakima, Grant and Franklin.
Yakima County is the top producer in the state; Whatcom County is second. They account for more than half the state's annual milk production.
Neibergs said that the price a dairy farmer receives for milk has the single largest effect on dairy profitability.
"The increase in dairy's statewide economic contribution does not necessarily mean that dairy production is more profitable, but that dairy revenue increased due to increased production and price," he said.
About 90 percent of the milk produced in Washington is also processed in the state. The processing side creates additional contributions to employment and the state economy, Neibergs said.
In relation to the rest of the U.S., Washington ranks 11th in the number of dairy cows and 10th in milk production.
California leads all states in production, Idaho ranks third and Oregon ranks 16th.