Agricultural production in Washington is nearly a $10 billion industry. Together with food processing, it supports more than 160,000 jobs and generates income in all 39 counties. Here, as in many other states, agricultural commodity commissions help promote specific products and provide a voice for producers. The state’s 21 commodity commissions are funded through producer assessments, primarily based on the volume of production. This amount totaled more than $40 million annually in recent years. Commissions primarily conduct research, education and marketing activities to support their industries.
As state law requires, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) provides oversight and administrative services to the commissions. It also offers other assistance as its resources allow.
This audit assessed the benefits agricultural commodity commissions provide to Washington’s producers and their industry by reviewing commission processes and surveying the state’s producers.
Agriculture is a vital part of Washington’s economy, helping to fill our grocery store shelves and restaurant kitchens. Farming and its many adjacent industries employ about 160,000 people in every corner of the state. To support specific commodities, the state has created 21 separate commissions to conduct research, education and marketing of the products, from blueberries to beef. The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) is well positioned to better coordinate and assist these commissions.
However, the audit found the agency is likely to need additional resources if it is to do so. For example, today a single, half-time position within the department is charged by statute with many key tasks, including:
Reviewing and approving commission budgets
Conducting board elections
This staff member also helps commissions understand how to comply with complex state regulations. Help from WSDA, in areas such as commission communications with producers and navigating state requirements, would increase both transparency and effectiveness.
Additionally, those within the industry believe they would benefit from statewide branding of Washington’s products, something WSDA is also well positioned to take on. This report includes a number of recommendations to both the agency and the commissions.
Washington’s rich soils and access to water for irrigation produce more than 300 different commodities, resulting in a diverse agricultural economy. Washington is the top-producing state for apples, blueberries, hops, pears, spearmint oil and sweet cherries, and ranks in the top three states for several other crops. The state’s agriculture industry also underpins a food processing industry that generates an additional $21.8 billion in revenue, and supports supply and marketing services in machinery, transportation and packaging, to name just a few.
The laws and rules that govern the 21 commodity commissions set out both required and allowed activities. They fall into five broad categories:
Promotion and market development
Education (producer and public)
Standards and labeling
Ensuring a fair regulatory environment
Benefits of commissions
Most surveyed agricultural commodity producers believe they benefit from their commission’s activities. Most also said they found value in their commission’s efforts. However, more transparent operations could help commissions communicate their value to producers and the public. For example, producers want more information about commission priorities and programs. WSDA is well positioned to communicate information about commission operations to producers and the general public by making it available online.
Producers also said commissions could improve efforts to actively solicit feedback. To do that, commissions could use surveys to engage with their producers and better understand their needs. During the development of our survey, commission staff expressed enthusiastic interest in obtaining the results. We have given copies of the survey materials to the commissions, which would enable them to administer their own, similar, anonymous surveys in the future. The goal is to gain ongoing information and perspectives from producers.
Coordinated efforts worthwhile
Taking a coordinated and comprehensive approach to marketing the state’s agriculture industry could help ensure future growth and success. Commission boards and producers both believe creating more demand for Washington’s commodities is key to the industry’s future. Developing a statewide brand for agricultural commodities could enhance demand for Washington products. Indeed, only seven states – including Washington – lack statewide agricultural branding programs. The audit found the experiences of other states with such programs suggest opportunities worth exploring here.
In addition, greater coordination between commissions could help enhance their promotional efforts, both nationally and internationally. By developing coordinated marketing efforts that highlight two or more Washington products in one campaign, commissions could:
Achieve more efficient promotional strategies
Grow customer awareness of the diversity of Washington’s agricultural products
Such campaigns are particularly useful for products the purchaser consumes directly.
WSDA support essential
As state agencies, commissions must follow state laws and rules that govern them. They must also comply with rules of other state agencies that oversee some of their activities. These laws and regulations can be complex and may change over time. Nearly all commissions said they needed help in understanding and navigating state agency requirements and services. Again, WSDA is well positioned to help commissions with these issues.
Commissions rely on accurate lists of producers to collect the assessments that pay for their programs. WSDA staff rely on accurate lists to conduct board elections and referenda votes. WSDA could help commissions ensure they have accurate and current member lists. In these and other areas, if WSDA had additional resources itself, it would be in a position to offer commissions even better support.
We made recommendations to WSDA to enhance the benefits the commissions provide to producers and the agriculture industry overall. Among the issues addressed are:
Increased transparency for the commissions through online information about their operations;
Engagement with producers through periodic surveys
Assistance that will help commissions – particularly small ones – navigate state requirements
Additional recommendations address the need for more coordination at the state level to enhance promotional efforts both domestically and internationally. We also recommended Washington develop a statewide agriculture brand to help market the state’s unique industry. To achieve them, we recommended the agency determine the resources it would need to provide further support for the commissions.
A final recommendation is to the commissions themselves. We recommended they work to measure and report the results of their activities, with the goal of improving transparency and informing producers about the value of their assessment dollars.