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A Special Place, A Special Opportunity

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Gary A. White, Director, Business Retention & Expansion, TRIDEC

Gary A. White, Director, Business Retention & Expansion, TRIDEC

A special place, this Columbia Basin. Located in southeast Washington State, it is firmly anchored by the communities of Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and Prosser, which hug the banks of the Columbia, Snake and Yakima Rivers. The Cascade, Blue, Wallowa and Rocky Mountain Ranges look down and keep a watchful eye on the Basin. The professionals call the climate a Continental Semi-Desert. The rest of us just call it a desert….a lot of sunshine, a lot of hot summers, a lot of sand, a lot of tumbleweeds, a lot of Jack Rabbits, a lot of Coyotes and, after the Columbia Basin Project, a lot of highly prized agricultural real estate.

The Columbia Basin Project, made possible by the Grand Coulee Dam’s completion in 1942, irrigates over 670,000 acres of once barren, but now amazingly productive farm land. Dams up and down the Columbia and Snake Rivers added to the irrigation bonanza. The opening of thousands of acres of land to irrigated farming provided the raw materials for a significant food and beverage processing cluster, pioneered by two significant visionaries…

Frank Gilbert “Gib” Lamb

In 1950 Mr. Lamb, an established vegetable producer, purchased a defunct co-op plant in Weston, Oregon and started Lamb Weston. In 1961 Lamb Weston entered the domestic potato processing market by building a new frozen potato processing plant in American Falls, Idaho followed by facilities, over the years, in Connell, Washington; Quincy, Washington; Richland, Washington; Pasco, Washington and Hermiston, Oregon.

In 1988 Lamb Weston was acquired by ConAgra Foods, the largest private packaged food business in North America, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. This Fortune 500 company with approximately $18 billion in sales and 36,000 employees, proudly boasts of such iconic brands as Banquet, Chef Boyardee, Egg Beaters, Healthy Choice, Hebrew Nation, Hunt’s, Marie Callender’s, Orville Redenbacher and Peter Pan. Twenty-seven brands are either #1 or #2 in their category. ConAgra’s ambition, expertise and money pushed Lamb Weston to the top of the potato sack.

Not one to be bound by tradition, Lamb Weston ventured into the unknown french fry world, breaking the hearts of traditionalists worldwide, with the development of Twister Fries, CrissCut Fries and Stealth Fries (they are hard to see, but they are there). To show the world they are not a “one-eyed spud”, Lamb Weston has developed Lamb’s Supreme Mashed Potatoes and the always favorite Stuffed Spudz in such popular flavors as Cheddar Cheese, Southwestern Chedder, Broccoli & Cheese, Chipotle Cheddar, Country Biscuit & Gravy and Fully Loaded Potato. Lamb Weston is considered the premier processor of frozen potato products in the world and its corporate headquarters is in the Columbia Basin (Kennewick, Washington). Not to be left alone in a developing neighborhood, Reser’s Find Foods, Tyson Foods, Milne Fruit Products and J. Lieb Foods have also set up shop, either up the street or around the block.

Dr. Walter J. Clore

Dr. Clore, the son of teetotalers, was the product of Central Oklahoma, precisely Tecumseh located in Pottawatomie County and named after the illustrious Shawnee chief. He was a graduate of what is known today as Oklahoma State University, majoring in horticulture and bumps and bruises as a lineman on the football team. In 1934 Walter and his bride, Irene migrated to Washington State to accept a horticulural fellowship at what is today Washington State University in Pullman. In 1937 he received his true calling when he accepted a position as an assistant horticulturist at what is known today as the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, Washington. There he oversaw the experimental plantings of 312 grape varieties.

Dr. Clore’s work conclusively proved that premium quality vinifera wine grapes could be grown in the rich volcanic soil and warm climate of the Columbia Basin. Dr. Clore retired from Washington State University in 1976 and published his studies in the classic book, “Ten Years of Grape Variety Responses and Wine-Making Trials in Central Washington”. He also co-authoried, “The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History”. His viticultural research, especially on the challenges of growing European wine grapes, played an indispensable role in the expansion of Washington viniculture. In 2003 the Washington State Legislature recognized Dr. Clore as the “Father of the Washington State Wine Industry”. His contribution is also recognized at the Walter Clore Winery and Culinary Center in Prosser.

Dr. Clore’s persistent experimentation and belief that the Columbia Basin could be a major international wine grape growing and wine-producing region, comparable to the most celebrated regions in Europe, laid the foundation for Washington State to become the second largest premium wine producer in the United States (California is #1) with over 750 wineries, 350 wine grape growers, 43,000 acres in grape production, 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), production of over 12 million cases annually representing over 30 varietals, generation of $1 billion in winery revenue and $1.06 billion in wine related tourism, employment of 27,445 in Washington State earning $1.17 billion in wages and a contribution of $8.6 billion to the Washington State economy. A new winery opens nearly every 15 days. (Interesting Note: I produced an event in 2002 named the Columbia River Wine Expo. At that time there were 208 wineries in the state. In 2013 there were 780. I am still waiting for my congratulatory handshake).

The Columbia Valley AVA, a roommate of the Columbia Basin, and just outside my office door, is Washington’s largest viticultural area, covering almost 11 million acres which represents a full third of Washington State’s land mass. Ninety-nine percent of Washington’s wine grapes are grown in the Columbia Valley AVA. They are still trying to figure out where the other one percent are grown. The wine industry is booming. The Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Washington) announced that the 2013 Washington State wine grape harvest was up 16% over the 2012 harvest. Estimates put the wine grapes crushed at almost 218,000 tons. (Interesting Note: the 2012 crop was 32% higher than the 2011 crop). The wineries would like another 10,000 acres planted to meet demand. The industry in Benton County (where Kennewick is located) employs nearly 5,200 people, producing the most wine in the state at approximately 11 million gallons per year. Construction is moving forward on the Washington State University Wine Science Centre in Richland (a Kennewick neighbor), a world-class research and teaching facility.

World-Class Food & Beverage Cluster

The Columbia Basin presents a special opportunity. Thanks to pioneers like Frank Lamb and Walter Clore, the abundance of sunshine, land, water, industry education and training, research and development, logistics and just plain ole entrepreneurial grit and vision the Basin has sprouted approximately 100 food and beverage processing companies, many world-class and internationally recognized, many more working on it.

The Tri-City Development Council (TRIDEC), in an effort to position the Columbia Basin as one of the world’s premier food and beverage processing regions, recently launched Fabreo (food and beverge retention & expansion opportunity) Columbia Basin. As with any good cluster development project, it all begins with good information, specifically information provided directly by the market. In January, we lauched an in-person, one-on-one survey targeted at approximately 100 food and beverage processing companies. The surveys address the strenghts and weaknesses of the community, the needs of the companies and the opportunities in the market. Most importantly, this humble writer gets to meet some of the most courageous, visionary and creative business people on planet earth. Fortunately, their little spot on planet earth is comfortably located in the Columbia Basin. Stay tuned as a special program is developing a special opportunity in a special place with the help of many, very special people.

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