Area’s food processing industry provides some stability in shaky economy

Food processing gross sales in Benton County reached $727 million 2007 and were $126 million in Franklin County.

And food processing jobs provided $130 million in wages in Benton and Franklin counties in 2007 – a 20 percent increase in three years.

The those food processing industry has played a significant role in the area’s economy for many years, but those jobs likely have never had more value than now.

Over the past year, Benton and Franklin counties have lost about 1,000 jobs, mostly in construction, said Dean Schau, Washington Employment Security Department regional labor economist.

But the area’s fertile agriculture industry coupled with humans’ basic need for food, makes the industry more recession resistant than others.  “People always have to eat,”  Schau said.

There are more than 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains and berries, grown in Benton and Franklin counties, including appleas, aspargas, barlet, carrots, corns, cherries, grapes, peas, onions, pears, peaches, wheat and potatoes.

And in the past seven years, food processing employment has increased by more than 80 percent, according to state statistics. “One of every 10 food processing workers in the state is here,” said Schau.

The area’s major food processing emploeyers include ConAgra/Lamb Weston, Twin City foods, Resers and Pasco Processing, which was formerly JR Simplot. Lamb Weston, with more than 2,100 workers, is the fourth-largest employer in the Tri-Cities.

The Mid-Columbia provides a perfect environment for agriculture processing companies, where they are close to the food source and have adequate trasnsportation, including rail and barge access down river to the Port of Portland.

Schau said in 200, there were 28 individual food processers in Benton and Franklin counties, mostly processing potatoes and fruit juice. And the area’s wine industry, which i also tallied under food processing category by the state, included a dozen wineries with 275 year-round jobs.

Now more than 80 plants, including wineries, can be counted in the two counties.

They include the major players, a growing number of wineries, and a handful of people making speialty items, like Chukar Cherries and Apres Vin, a Prosser company that produces gourmet varietal grape seed ol.

“Food processing is one of our target industries,” said Carl Adrian, presiden of the Tri-Cities Industrial Development Council.  Adrain said much of the food processing dome in the area is “one-step” – taking fresh produce off the farms and freexing or pakcinf it, or making frozen potato products.

He said TRIDEC is researching what it can to do attract companies who produce convenience foods, like Reser’s.

“That’s the next step, pot pies, Hot Pockets – these jobs tend to require more background and many require a clean room”, he said.

The recession’s impacts on the sales of the processed convenience foods may not be great, but the economic situation is preventing many companies from expanding right now, Adrian said.

“We had a fairly significant food processor who had been looking at the area, but that project has been put on hold, partly bcause of the economy,” said Adrian. “Capital markets right now make it hard for them to expand.”

 Source: Tri City Herald

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