Originally posted in the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business

Tri-Cities Has Hold on NW Industry Hub

By Mark Fountain

Today, many people do not know where their food comes from. But Tri-City residents can just look down the road and see some of the country’s largest food and beverage manufacturing facilities. 

The Pasco-Kennewick-Richland area and its surrounding counties are a major hub of food processing. Local companies make products including french fries, apple juice, frozen fruit and vegetables, and much more. The fertile soil and sunny skies of Eastern Washington provide some of the best growing opportunities on the West Coast. 

Food Northwest, my employer, is proud to represent and support the food and beverage industry in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.  Established in 1914, our trade association’s purpose is to enhance the ability of the industry to deliver wholesome, safe food from the Northwest to the world. 

Our membership has a robust presence in the Tri-City area. Some members you may recognize include Bolthouse Farms, Kerr, Lamb Weston, Milne, Reser’s, Seneca Foods, Smucker’s, Tree Top and Twin City Foods.

Strong regional presence is a driving factor in our decision to move our flagship event, Northwest Food & Beverage World, to Spokane for two years. On Feb. 17-19, 2020, thousands of food processors, equipment manufacturers and service companies will gather for the largest regional food manufacturing show in the country.

Attendees can expect to see the latest equipment in action, hear expert speakers and educators, and network with colleagues on and off the show floor. 

The food and beverage processing industry continues to be a mainstay of productivity in the Northwest. During the last major recession, food processing was one of only a few industries that did not experience a downturn. In fact, industry employment grew by 11 percent between 2008-14. It directly employs more than 47,000 people in Washington, with more than $2 billion in wages paid in 2016. Washington’s food industry wages are 1.5 times higher than the national average, providing family-wage jobs throughout the state. 

Although the industry remains successful, there are challenges our members face every day. Like many other manufacturers in the Pacific Northwest, our products are exported outside the region and the country. The current administration’s trade policies have caused supply chain ripple effects throughout the industry. Not only is our export market affected, but the cost of inputs to process food, ranging from metal cans, plastics and equipment, have increased. 

Safety of the food supply is always our primary concern. Risks posed by cyberattacks have amplified the need for comprehensive cybersecurity and emergency response plans to assure that food remains safe from outside intervention. 

Under a new Food and Drug Administration program, food companies are installing equipment and procedures to prevent intentional contamination of food. 

The inability to find skilled workers is a major challenge for the industry. The decrease in numbers of young people pursuing technical education has led to a shortage of welders, electricians, mechanics and technicians. Further, the existing workforce is aging, and skilled workers are retiring.  Many of our members experience constant vacancies that they struggle to fill. In fact, thousands of jobs go unfilled every year. 

To address this skills gap, Food Northwest now offers two types of scholarships: one for university students with food industry career goals and another for the current employees and families of member companies that also covers tuition at technical and trade schools. This year, we will award 10 scholarships. The association also is looking to develop partnerships between the food industry and local school districts, community colleges and state programs to advance interest in technical educations and food industry careers. 

Climate change, sustainability and the environment are major concerns. Food processors are aggressively taking actions to protect and enhance the environment. We are proud that as an industry we are on track to meet our goal to reduce energy use and carbon emissions by 25 percent in 10 years and are proceeding to work toward another 25 percent reduction. We also are proud that we have been a national leader in this effort.

Food Northwest’s Board of Directors selected me as president in March 2019. Previously, I worked as vice president of operations at Oregon Fruit Products LLC. I began my career at the former Nestle Potato in Moses Lake and worked for several other food companies in the Northwest, including J.R. Simplot, Welch’s and Tree Top. I was born in Eastern Washington and lived in the Tri-Cities for 30 years. My father owns a farm near the Tri-Cities. I have a strong connection to the region and am eager to support the food processing industry in my new role as president. 

Thank you for your interest and please let us know how we can help. 

Mark Fountain, an Eastern Washington native, is president of Portland-based Food Northwest, a trade association organized to advance the ability of the food industry to produce and deliver wholesome, safe food from the Pacific Northwest to the world.