Oregon always has been an agricultural state, with all parts of the state contributing. There’s wheat, beef, potatoes and onions from Eastern Oregon; grass seed, vegetables and nuts from the Willamette Valley; and fruit from the Columbia River Gorge and Southern Oregon.
Oregon’s ability to grow and raise so many types of food has created the foundation for an expanding food economy that includes all levels of the food chain, from farms and ranches to food processors and distributors to restaurants and retailers.
Oregon leads the nation in production of at least a dozen crops, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
But Oregon is known for more than the quantity of food it produces. It has a growing reputation for the quality of its products. The New York Times has been writing glowing articles about the Portland food scene for a decade. In 2015, the Washington Post declared that Portland was the nation’s best food city. Last year, the Thrillest website, which specializes in food, travel and entertainment rankings, placed Oregon as the No. 6 food state. And Oregon wines sit near the top of all types of rankings.
All of this success and attention has created what some call “the Oregon brand” and helped make the food industry a major job creator in Oregon, as detailed in a recent report from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis (OOEA). Oregon’s food economy overall employs nearly 290,000 workers, or 15 percent of the state workforce, according to the OOEA report. That represents between 4 and 5 percent of state Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The majority of those workers, about 160,000 in 2017, are employed in food services. Restaurants and specialty food stores have done well nationwide during the economic expansion, and Oregon’s growth has mirrored national trends. The part of the food chain where Oregon has well exceeded national averages, according to OOEA, is food processing. Almost 100,000 Oregon workers are involved in the production, processing, and distribution segments of the food economy. Oregon ranks fourth in the nation in total food manufacturing jobs added (about 7,000) from 2007-2017 and sixth in percentage growth.
The explosion in production of Oregon beverages helped drive the growth in food production. Direct and indirect economic activity (including production and retail sales) related to wine alone increased from $3.35 billion in 2013 to $5.61 billion in 2016, according to a study for the Oregon Wine Board. But just about every food category contributed to increased production and job growth, including ones that you don’t typically associate with Oregon, such as tortillas and snack food. To see more details from the OOEA report, click here.
This growth pays off for the Oregon economy in myriad ways. Food production and distribution jobs, on average, pay better than service jobs. The state’s reputation benefits when satisfied consumers in other states or countries buy Tillamook cheese and ice cream, Kettle potato chips, Beaver Brand condiments or Oregon wines and beers. And as Oregon brands have become more popular, many of these companies have invested in new or expanded facilities, creating construction jobs. Colleges also have added and enhanced programs to train workers for the food industry.
In a press release about the recent study of the Oregon wine economy, Oregon Wine Board Communications Manager Sally Murdoch expressed a sentiment about recent success that also is heard in other Oregon food sectors: “It’s emblematic of the hard work our growers are putting in day in and day out that we see this growth,” Murdoch said.
The biggest threats to this growth are the same ones facing other manufacturing industries: trade policies, which could restrict access to foreign markets, and the availability of skilled workers. But Oregon’s food industry has shown that it knows how to overcome obstacles.