Ag a key economic player in Columbia River Gorge

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press Oregon economists Nick Beleiciks, left, and Dallas Fridley described agriculture's impact in the Columbia River Gorge at a May 14 symposium in Hood River.

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — Agriculture is a major economic influence in the Columbia River Gorge counties, panelists said at a May 14 conference, and Oregon’s Sherman County is a prime example.

“Sherman County can lead the state in terms of earnings per capita or it can be at the bottom, depending on what commodity prices are doing,” said Dallas Fridley, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department.

In 2013, thanks mainly to good wheat prices, per capita personal income in the county was $57,738, while other gorge counties ranged from $38,000 to $40,000, Fridley said.

The income figures were among the information nuggets distributed during the Columbia Gorge Economic Symposium. Panelists said agriculture and associated activities such as food processing are key components of the mid-Columbia economy. The event examined prospects in Hood River, Wasco and Sherman counties in Oregon, and Klickitat and Skamania counties in Washington. In the region, the natural resource sector, which includes agriculture, provides 18 percent of jobs but only 12 percent of wages, speakers said.

Mike Glover, executive director of the Hood River County Chamber of Commerce, said the organization wants to make agriculture and value-added agriculture — such as wineries and distilleries — a bigger part of the county’s tourism draw. The annual “Fruit Loop” celebration, which encourages visitors to see the valley’s orchards, has been a successful event for years, he said.

“We want to soften the seasonality of it, we want to provide year-round employment,” he said.

Given the breweries, wineries and cider makers springing up in the area, Glover said the gorge could use a fermentation science education program.

The chamber also is concerned that rising real estate prices in Hood River put housing out of reach for workers, Glover said.

“As we look down the pike we don’t want to make Hood River so popular that we love it to death and people can’t afford to live here,” he said.

Ken Bailey, an orchardist based in Wasco County, said his farm employment has almost doubled in the past five years. Technological changes will require additional training for workers, especially in packing houses as machines take over sorting and sizing duties, he said.

Drone technology is poised to take off when the FAA gives full flight approval, with agriculture and law enforcement likely to be the first users of unmanned aerial vehicles, said Jessica Metta, executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Technology Alliance. Insitu Inc., which makes drone aircraft for military and other uses, is based in Bingen, Wash., and has attracted associated businesses to the area.

Overall, the economies in Oregon and Washington has largely recovered jobs lost during the recession and are keeping pace with national expansion, state economists said.

Oregon’s unemployment rate was 5.4 percent in March, compared to the national rate of 5.5 percent, said Nick Beleiciks, a workforce trend expert with the Oregon Employment Department. The last time Oregon had a better rate than the national rate was 1996, he said.

“The labor market’s doing really well,” Beleiciks said. “I”m not sure everyone is getting that message.”

Oregon’s job growth is broad based, with the exception of mining and logging jobs, which dropped recently. That’s probably due to a decline in log exports to China, Beleiciks said.

Paul Turek, an economist with Washington’s Employment Security Department, said the private industry recovery is “mostly complete.” Construction jobs haven’t rebounded to pre-recession numbers, but they were probably inflated during that time by the housing bubble that fueled the 2009 recession. People remain cautious, which should prevent another overheated “bubble mania,” he said.

A spike in oil prices isn’t likely soon, Turek said, and wage gains are “imminent.”

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