Grays Harbor and U.S. Soy fuel Aberdeen’s economic engine

Joseph L. Murphy

Joseph L. Murphy

Light Shaping Photography & Communications

In the early 90’s, Grunge music roared out of the Pacific Northwest (PNW), taking the world by surprise. The music was stripped down, loud and offered raw emotional lyrics. Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana led the Grunge music wave with other bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and the Screaming Trees. At the time, the economy of the PNW reflected the music.

Cobain grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, an area of the PNW that was economically depressed after the logging industry dried up partly because of an effort to protect the Spotted Owl. The area became the essence of Grunge music, with Cobain drawing inspiration for his songs from the city he roamed.

Soybean meal to the rescue

For the past three decades, Aberdeen and other areas of the PNW have experienced a renaissance that can be tied to a commodity grown nearly 1500 miles away in the fields of North Dakota and the upper Midwest. In 2003, U.S. Soy farmers made crucial investments that helped Ag Processing Inc. (AGP) expand the Port of Grays Harbor, making it the second-largest export facility for soybeans and other materials.

The port’s success has drawn other businesses and industries to the area while expanding the tax base, allowing the city to make essential infrastructure upgrades and other quality-of-life improvements.

“Private investment is really what creates the jobs,” Gary Nelson, the Port of Grays Harbor Executive Director, says.” We need that private connection, the nexus between private and public funding.”

A blueprint for successful investments

Through the soybean checkoff, farmers’ investments provided an early blueprint to increase their ability to export soybeans while lowering transportation costs. The same blueprint was used to help dredge the lower Mississippi River, repair road and rail bridges and is being used to expand the St. Lawrence Seaway.

“The old rule is that it is easier to sustain momentum than create momentum,” Mike Steenhoek, Director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, says of investing in transportation infrastructure. “Once you have some of these catalysts, momentum starts being created, and then that results in a greater degree of investment into that space.”

Last year, AGP announced upgrades of its existing storage and export facility at the port with the addition of 4 more silos and a new aspiration system, along with plans to construct a new export facility at Terminal 4 with a state-of-the-art ship loader.

Farmers making key investments

The United Soybean Board (USB) will invest $400,000 in the research, analysis and design costs of the Port of Grays Harbor’s Terminal 4 Expansion and Redevelopment Project. USB joins the Soy Transportation Coalition, Iowa Soybean Association, Kansas Soybean Commission, Nebraska Soybean Board, North Dakota Soybean Council and South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, bringing the total farmer research investment to $1.3 million.

“It’s an additional 50 acres that they are opening up and developing,” Belinda Burrier, a farmer leader from Maryland, says during a recent visit to Grays Harbor. “That’s security for the American farmer to know that they will be able to handle all that we can send this way. Even though I don’t use the PNW for my soybeans, it’s bringing back value to those on the East Coast.”

Burrier says that her farm in Maryland is a beneficiary as much as a farmer in the Midwest. For her, the investment in updating and maintaining infrastructure improves national security, and investments in exports and infrastructure for U.S. Soy are a tide that lifts all ships.

Harboring a strong economy

Developed in the mid-90s, the Port of Grays Harbor’s mission statement is to utilize its resources best to facilitate, enhance, and stimulate international trade, economic development, and tourism for the betterment of the region.

“People look at the port as the economic indicator for the local economy,” Nelson says. “If they come by and see activity, they feel good about what’s going on.”

Brian Shay, the City Administrator for the City of Hoquiam, a neighboring city to Aberdeen has witnessed that mission come to fruition.

“AGP, BWC Terminals, Renewable Energy Group Chevron, Willis Enterprises, and more have all brought tremendous tax revenue, family wage jobs, and generous community support to Hoquiam and all of Grays Harbor County,” Shay says. “There is a strong public/private partnership between the Port of Grays Harbor, their customers, and local communities like Hoquiam, generating tremendous benefits to our community and paving the way for an even brighter future.”

Come As You Are was a famous song written by Cobain and performed by Nirvana. It has become the mantra of Aberdeen and Grays Harbor County as they open their doors to new opportunities and enjoy a booming economy in the area.

“Today, Grays Harbor has one of the lowest unemployment rates we have had since the 1980s at just over four percent,” Shay says. “Growing up in Grays Harbor, I have watched our economy shift since the 1990s. Grays Harbor is much stronger today than we were in the 1990s with diverse, strong economic industries and additional opportunities for further growth.”

In 2021, Aberdeen had a population of 16.8k people with a median age of 35.3 and a median household income of $43,836. Between 2020 and 2021 the population of Aberdeen, WA grew from 16,571 to 16,842, a 1.64% increase and its median household income grew from $42,203 to $43,836, a 3.87% increase. In 1989 the median household income for Grays Harbor County was $25,603.

Soybeans creating an impact

Recently, The National Oilseed Processors Association (NOPA) and the United Soybean Board (USB) announced a new study, The Economic Impact of the U.S. Soybeans & End Products on the U.S. Economy, that examines the value of the American soybean industry. The 33-page study analyzed the soybean value chain’s impact on the U.S. economy, based on data from crop years 2019/20 to 2021/22.

  • The total economic impact on the U.S. economy from the soybean sector averaged $124 billion, including $85.7 billion from soy production and $9.8 billion from soybean processing — the U.S. soy sector accounts for approximately 0.6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.
  • There are more than 500,000 individuals involved in soy farm decision-making. This includes 223,000 paid, full-time equivalent jobs and an additional 62,000 family members beyond growers who reside on farms and are integral to soybean farming operations.
  • The total wage impact of the sector averaged $10 billion.

“When you come to a site like Grays Harbor, you see critical infrastructure that is linking together buyers and sellers internationally, domestically and globally,” Mac Marshall, vice president of market intelligence for the United Soybean Board, says. “Hearing about the potential economic prosperity in this region that can come from this port expansion is amazing. It’s an investment that U.S. Soy farmers are making to help expand market access and to help narrow basis, but it’s also having a ripple effect on local economies.”

Jobs for generations

Billy Swor has worked as a longshoreman since 1968, just like his father did before him. Swor remembers the late 80s and early 90s when Aberdeen was losing its industrial capacity as sawmills, pulp mills, and lumber mills closed their doors. That is until the grain started flowing in from the Midwest.

“This grain operation [AGP] was perfect timing for us as far as continuity of a job,” Swor says. “It has created so much economic opportunity it’s just been really a godsend.”

Swor believes the economic prosperity at the port has allowed many in the community to earn a comfortable living.

 “This is the economic engine that is driving many jobs in our community,” Billy Swor says. “The port, the jobs being created, and the associated commerce from those jobs is a multiplier, as they say. We’re lucky to be in this posture and position right now, especially going forward with this expansion.”