Wheat, hay and potatoes often come to mind as the top agricultural commodities grown in the three Pacific Northwest states, but the 2017 Census of Agriculture found those well-known commodities were dwarfed by two others — milk and apples.

Listed by state, the largest agricultural commodities by production value in 2017 were $2.5 billion for milk in Idaho and $2.4 billion for apples in Washington, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the USDA.

The next largest commodity was Idaho’s cattle and calf production at $1.3 billion.

2017 Ag Census logo (2 col)

Those statistics are included in a data set separate from the recently released Census of Agriculture, but they underscore the size and stability of the region’s top agricultural commodities.

For the three Pacific Northwest states combined, the top commodity was again milk, which was in a class by itself with $4.2 billion in 2017 value of production.

Cattle and calves, including beef and dairy cows, were second at $2.7 billion regionwide and apples were close behind at $2.4 billion.

Rounding out the top six regional commodities were potatoes at $1.83 billion, hay at $1.81 billion and wheat at $1.3 billion.

With some slight ups and downs, the largest commodities remained stable in regional acreage and production volume in the 2017 census compared to the previous census in 2012.

For example, wheat production was up in Washington and down a bit in Oregon and Idaho, while hay production trended upward in all three states between 2012 and 2017.

Potato production was up slightly in Oregon and Washington and down in Idaho.

“The census shows that the Northwest is a very diversified agricultural producing region, just as it is in topography, growing conditions and weather,” said Christopher Mertz, Northwest director of NASS.

“The census data again demonstrates the uniqueness of our producers and what we can produce in our special part of the country,” he said.

He noted blueberries and hops were two minor crops that showed big production gains in the 2017 census.

Washington blueberry acreage grew from 8,911 acres in 2012 to 12,782 in 2017, a jump of 43%. Oregon acreage grew from 9,488 to 12,244, an increase of 29%. Idaho grew from from 34 to 65 acres, a 91% gain.

While smaller specialty crops have more room for dramatic increases in production, major commodities such as wheat and hay tend to remain more stable and are less subject to changes, said Desmond O’Rourke, a retired Washington State University agricultural economist.

A couple of census years aren’t always indicative of trends because weather, prices and other factors can cause temporary changes, O’Rourke said. Potatoes are one of the most stable crops because the volume is set by contracts and depends on a decreasing number of processors, he said.

A common trend across numerous commodities is fewer farmers producing nearly the same amount of a crop, Mertz said.

Milk and apples

“Milk sales annually are at least a top four commodity in the Northwest,” Mertz said. “For the three states, sales of milk in dollars dropped nearly 2% from the 2012 census. All three states showed an increase in number of milk cows but it appears that lower milk prices led to the decline in sales.”

The number of milk cows in Idaho has increased by more than 25,000 since the 1997 Census, he said.

“Dairy is the roller coaster,” O’Rourke said. “If you get higher feed prices and lower milk prices at the same time, you’re in a squeeze.”

Milk has done fairly well on the cost side, given low feed prices in recent years, but prices have bounced all around largely because of supply-and-demand fluctuations, O’Rourke said.

Margins are tight and smaller dairies, particularly in Western Washington, continue to fade, he said.

Long-term trends are more apparent in fruit crops, and while the number of farms growing apples, sweet cherries and pears in Washington was down in 2017 compared to 2012, acreage was higher in apples and sweet cherries, O’Rourke said.

“This means fruit farms have been getting bigger,” he said.

In 2017, the percentage of fruit trees in blocks of 100 acres or more was 84.6% for Washington apples, 44% for sweet cherries and 30.5% in pears, he said.

The trend was not as pronounced in Oregon and Idaho but still apparent with the exception of a large increase in small fruit farms in Oregon, probably reflective of “alternative lifestyle folks” in the Willamette Valley, O’Rourke said.

More than 91% of apple holdings in Oregon are less than 5 acres, he said.

The percentage of non-bearing apple and sweet cherry acreage crept up between 2012 and 2017 in Washington, suggesting those commodities were still in expansion mode, O’Rourke said, noting that was not true in pears.

Wheat, hay, potatoes, cattle

The number of Northwest farms growing wheat declined 20% from 2012 to 2017, but the acreage harvested declined only 2%, from 4,343,320 to 4,252,819. Total production was 289,750,333 bushels, down 2%. In the Northwest, Washington led in acreage and production.

The number of Northwest hay producers declined 6% from 2012 but the number of acres harvested increased 4.8% from 2,935,012 to 3,076,487. Total production was up 11.7% from 9,520,040 tons to 10,638,056 tons. Idaho led in both acreage and production.

Hay prices have done a bit better than grain prices and have generally held up well, O’Rourke said.

The number of potato farmers in all three states dropped 34% but the number of acres devoted to the crop dropped just 0.3% from 550,809 to 549,143. Production declined just 0.5% from 260,695,000 hundredweight to 259,315,000 hundredweight. Idaho led in acreage and production.

The number of beef and dairy cattle and calves changed little in all three states between 2012 and 2017. Idaho’s herd grew from 2.39 million to 2.43 million head. Oregon’s slipped from 1.29 million to 1.24 million head and Washington’s slipped from 1.16 million to 1.15 million head.

Blueberries, hops, grapes, nuts

“The berry business has been growing steadily over the last 10 years or so because of being a super fruit health-wise,” O’Rourke said.

“Berries are really handy to eat. You don’t have to worry about residue, like the peel, pit or core. There is no waste,” he said.

Washington and Oregon lead the nation in blueberry production because their climates provide a long production window and disease resistance, according to the Washington State Blueberry Commission.

Washington grew 117 million pounds of blueberries in 2017 and Oregon grew 109 million, according to NASS annual statistics.

Hops have also been on the rise with a 93% increase in Northwest acreage since 2012, Mertz said.

There were 56,618 acres of hops in the three states in 2017 with Washington increasing by 16,000 acres over five years, Idaho up by more than 7,000 and Oregon up by more than 3,900.

The three states, which grow the vast majority of the U.S. crop, produced 110.4 million pounds of hops in 2017, up 88% from five years earlier.

“Hops have historically been a cyclical crop, and the 2017 Census captured the current upswing,” Mertz said.

The increase has been driven by huge growth in the number of craft breweries, which is now tapering off, hop industry sources have said.

All grapes, including those used for wine and juice, increased from 46,000 tons in Oregon in 2012 to 77,000 tons in 2017. Acreage rose from 20,900 to 23,871 and the number of producers grew from 1,305 to 1,481.

Grape tonnage in Washington increased from 380,000 to 419,000, acreage increased from 71,494 to 77,628 and the number of producers grew by one to 1,356.

Hazelnuts are another crop showing significant growth in acreage, according to the census. Acreage for the nut, which is grown almost exclusively in Oregon, increased to 68,378 acres in 2017 from 37,097 acres in 2012. That’s an increase of 84%.

The number of farms growing hazelnuts leap-frogged from 827 in 2012 to 1,331 in 2017, a gain of 60%.

Central Washington field reporter

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