Agriculture Growing New Business and Connections Between Washington and Asia: Part II

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by SEAN CONNELL
Skagit Valley, Washington attracts trade and exchange with businesses and farmers from around Asia [Photo: Lynne Jordan]

Washington State’s Skagit Valley is, in many ways, emblematic of the state’s agriculture sector and bounty. More than 80 crops are currently grown in the valley, which offers some of the world’s richest soils, and while it lacks the land availability and growing conditions that make eastern Washington one of the leading world producers of grains and other agriculture commodities, it has become a world leader in cabbage, beet, and spinach seed production, tulips and bulb flowers, and other specialty crops. The Skagit Valley is also, in many ways, a microcosm of Washington’s connections with Asia in agriculture, both historically and looking towards the future.

Sakuma Brothers Farms, one of Skagit County’s largest agriculture producers, embodies this fact. The business is led by a fourth-generation Japanese-American family that started berry growing in the Skagit Valley during the 1930s after relocating from Bainbridge Island—itself a leading center of Japanese-American farms during that era. Today Sakuma Brothers is one of the leading growers and processors of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries in Washington and exports its produce around the world, with particularly strong markets in Asia and Japan. A decade ago, family members tried their hand at growing tea, using camellia plants and harvesting equipment imported from Taiwan. Over the years, they have offered home-grown green tea, white tea, and oolong tea for sale, making them one of only two commercial growers of tea on the US mainland.

Asia is very much on the minds of Skagit County growers and producers as they explore new market and investment opportunities. For example, the Port of Skagit, which hosts the core of the county’s value-added agriculture industry centered around Washington State University’s research station and Bread Lab located there, is in the process of establishing a flour mill for local grain growers and exploring opportunities such as sales of local buckwheat to Japan for use in soba noodles. At the same time, the region is drawing increasing amounts of foreign direct investment in agriculture, including from Asia. Among the most prominent has been Sakata Seed America, a subsidiary of one of Japan’s largest seed companies, which acquired local producer Alf Christianson Seed Company in 2002.

Similar trends can be found across Washington, as farmers, producers, and consumers on both sides of the Pacific explore new specialty products and opportunities. Ninety Farms in Arlington, which raises Katahdin hair sheep, regularly exports lambs to the Philippines for use as breeding stock for local herds. The Port of Olympia shipped 1,400 dairy cows to Vietnam in November 2015, opening a new business line, and during the past year Grant County in eastern Washington has exchanged agriculture-focused business missions with its sister city of Gunpo, South Korea. Chinese agriculture delegations are increasing in number to Washington, and in May 2016 Shenzhen Municipality in China signed a memorandum of understanding with Snohomish County targeting agricultural development and exchanging information between the two regions. The burgeoning market for craft beer in Japan has opened the door for Washington microbreweries such as Diamond Knot in Mukilteo and Scuttlebutt in Everett to export their beer there.

Agriculture training and development is another important area of partnership between Washington State and Asia. Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake has for 50 years hosted the Japanese Agriculture Training Program, a work and training program that has brought more than 4,800 Japanese farmers to the United States for a year-long study and training program including living and working at US farms. More recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has launched an international program supporting agricultural development, including projects in South Asia promoting increased productivity, sustainability, and access to market for local farmers.

Agriculture, in Washington and across the US, is forging new partnerships between Asia and some of the most rural US communities. With agriculture trade and investment the foundation of many US states’ and communities’ ties with Asia, it will continue to be a fertile area bridging people across the Pacific.