Becoming Yakima

Posted in Blog, Farming on Monday, December 12, 2022

Becoming Yakima

From the base of Mount Rainier, this agricultural hub is the state’s lead producer of apples, hops, mint and a host of other local favorite fruits and vegetables.

In the heart of Central Washington sits the fruitful Yakima Valley. With a backdrop of Mount Rainier and the Cascade Mountains, this growing city continues to be an agricultural capital for the state. Its rich and porous soil makes the Yakima Valley a lead hops producer. In fact, the area produces 75% of all the hops grown in the U.S. It is also a leading producer of tree fruits like apples, cherries, peaches, pears, nectarines and apricots. It’s also become a hub for vineyards and wineries. Sitting roughly along the same latitude as the rich wine regions of France, Yakima is quickly becoming a tourist destination to sample the local wines and tour the region. However, the physical location of Yakima as a city is mainly due to the history and power of the railroads.

The Yakama tribe were the first known inhabitants of the Yakima Valley. After the Lewis and Clark Expedition first crossed through the valley in 1805, a steady stream of settlers began to make their way to the area. A small village located near Ahtanum Creek emerged in the 1860s, and soon it became known as Yakima City. In 1880, there were 3,000 people in the county. Naturally, the railroads followed. The Northern Pacific Railway advanced up the Yakima Valley towards Puget Sound. The future of Yakima was dependent on the railroad, and Northern Pacific thought Yakima City was too swampy and poorly laid out. So, Northern Pacific decided to put the main station four miles north and establish a new city. In early 1885, new lots were offered to the people of Yakima City. The railroad paid the moving costs for residents and business owners to move to the new city they called “North Yakima.” Entire businesses and buildings were hauled four miles by teams of mules and horses.

The new North Yakima soon established itself as the commercial center of the valley. On Jan. 1, 1918, the “North” was dropped from the name, and it became, simply, Yakima. The old Yakima City was renamed Union Gap, which was named for the gap between the hills created by the Yakima River. The city’s population rose steadily, from 45,588 in 1970 to 54,843 in 1990, and to 93,829 in 2020. This makes it the 11th largest city in Washington. The population increases were fueled partly by the arrival of Mexican American farmworkers from Texas in the early 1930s. When the U.S. entered World War II, and farm labor became scarce, the U.S. government established the Bracero program in 1942. This allowed Mexican workers to come to the U.S. to work the fields and farms. The Yakima Valley became a temporary stop for many Mexican farmworkers. By the 1980s, Yakima’s Hispanic population was at 14.8%. Today it is 50%, one of the highest of any county in the state.

Yakima continues to be a dominant force in the agriculture industry. According to Washington State University, Yakima County leads the state in the production of apples, sweet cherries and pears (including Bartlett pears). There are hundreds of acres of peaches, nectarines, plums/prunes, apricots and other soft fruits. It is also the leading producer of squash (summer and winter) and peppers (bell and chile) in Washington and has over 3,600 acres of sweet corn. Also, a number of berry crops, including blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and currants, find their way to niche markets, broaden the selection of fruits at numerous fruit stands in the area, and contribute to the growing fruit juice industry in the region. The county has more than 19,000 acres of grapes, including juice grapes like Concord as well as wine and table grapes. Yakima is also Washington’s No. 1 producer of melon, including watermelon, cantaloupe and muskmelon.

With the steady population growth, there is barely any visible delineation between Union Gap and Yakima. The old Yakima City and North Yakima have melded into one.