Did port slowdowns bust our hay export boom?

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Hay languished in the fields this year while farmers waited for dockworkers to settle their contract dispute with West Coast port operators.

While Washington's farmers rejoiced at the recent resolution of the four-month-long work slowdown at West Coast ports, the ill effects of that protracted labor dispute are not over yet. Months of late shipments have overseas markets skittish about American trade. That concern promises to linger for Washington-grown apples, wheat, potatoes and especially hay. Yes, hay.

If I asked you what Washington grows you’d probably mention apples, cherries, wheat and wine grapes. You might even think to add potatoes to the list. But hay isn’t on most people’s radar, despite the fact that it is one of the state’s most important crops.

According to census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), hay was valued at $720 million in 2014, placing it fourth among Washington crops — right behind apples, milk and potatoes, just ahead of wheat and well ahead of wine grapes. In fact livestock feed, which is primarily hay, is Washington’s number one agricultural export by volume, according to the Port of Seattle.

Hay exports have grown dramatically in recent years. Peter Tozer, an agricultural economist at Washington State University, says that in the last decade Washington’s hay exports increased by about 128 percent. While it’s difficult to arrive at an exact number in terms of volume, Tozer estimates that more than half of all hay grown in Washington today is exported.

Or, it was.

Along with other more perishable goods, the hay market has taken a significant hit from the recent dockworker slowdown that crippled all West Coast ports, including Seattle and Tacoma.

Hay is not a newcomer to the agricultural export market, but overseas demand has skyrocketed in recent years. Most of this homegrown feed, which consists largely of timothy grass and alfalfa plus a few other minor crops such as orchardgrass and sudangrass, was sold domestically. But the appetite for hay in Asia, where meat and dairy industries are rapidly growing, has boosted both exports and the price of U.S. hay.

That was great news for Washington hay farmers. Tozer said that last year, the lion’s share of Washington-grown hay was shipped to Japan, South Korea and China. The United Arab Emirates, where water to grow feed for camels and other livestock is scarce, is a relatively newer export destination.

So why is Washington-grown hay so hot overseas? “Here in the Columbia Basin with our water, hot days, cold nights and fertile soils, we can grow really high quality, high protein alfalfa,” says Columbia Basin farmer Jim Baird, who calls Washington hay some of the best in the world.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Sylvia Kantor

Sylvia Kantor

Sylvia Kantor is Seattle-based freelance writer and formerly a science writer at Washington State University in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. You can follow her journey through the U.S. National Park system at 59x59blog.wordpress.com