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Don't forget agriculture in looking at Big Picture


IN MY OPINION by Katy Coba, Oregon Department of Agriculture

It's an industry that equates to more than $8 billion in economic activity when you consider all the directly related goods and activities. One in 12 jobs with a payroll exceeding $2.8 billion is connected to this industry. It's an industry that plays an important role in the economy of all 36 Oregon counties. Yet somehow, agriculture was not even mentioned in The Oregonian's 2004 Economic Forecast ("The Big Picture," Sunday, Jan. 18) featuring the analyses of five top economists.

Far too often -- and mistakenly so -- urban discussions of Oregon's economic present and future seem to forget about the state's second-largest traded sector, the production and value-added processing of agricultural commodities. Under valid and consistent definitions of economic activity, only the electronics industry ranks higher. It is time that all Oregonians keep agriculture on the economic radar screen and insist that agriculture be at the table when decisions are made about what kind of Oregon we want in the future.

I found it interesting that the cover picture of The Oregonian's 2004 forecast showed cargo ostensibly being loaded or unloaded at a Port of Portland facility. By volume, agriculture and food products are Oregon's largest export. By value, they rank second only to electronics at nearly $2 billion a year. A majority of the Port of Portland's total tonnage of exports -- about 60 percent -- is agriculture. In the story, the picture is there but the words are missing.

Here are some other reasons why agriculture needs to be part of the equation of Oregon's economic solution. The state's value of agricultural production -- what it's worth before it leaves the farm or ranch -- has increased in 15 of the past 17 years. Name another industry sector with that kind of steady, reliable growth over a similar time frame. Food processing, an important component of Oregon's manufacturing capacity, adds another $2 billion in economic activity each year. Oregon has more than 40,000 farms that manage 17 million acres of private land. Those farms produce the raw agricultural products that fuel some 1,800 companies that process many of these products into something of value to consumers.

Surprising to most Oregonians, five of the state's seven top agricultural producing counties are within an hour's drive of Portland or Eugene. While the economic activity is important to urban Oregon, it takes on even more importance in the rural communities where there aren't as many competing industries to sustain service industries.

Agriculture is gaining strength. Net farm income is on the way back up, exports are increasing and many commodity prices are better than they have been in five years.

Agriculture is not an industry of the past. It is a key player on a team that keeps Oregon's economic engine running. It is time for all Oregonians, including economists, to value its contribution to our way of life.

Katy Coba is director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.


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