Adams County profile

Washington state map with Adams county highlightedby Donald W. Meseck, regional labor economist - updated November 2017

Overview | Geographic facts | Outlook | Labor force and unemployment | Industry employment | Wages and income | Population | Useful links|  PDF Profile copy


Regional context

Adams County is the 14th largest county in Washington state, and covers 1,925 square miles. Located in southeastern Washington, it is bounded by Lincoln County on the north, Whitman to the east, Franklin to the south and Grant on the west. Two-thirds of its population is rural as its low population density of 9.4 persons per square mile indicates. Since its creation in 1883, the area has been known as an agricultural and livestock ranching area that continues to prosper today. Wheat, corn, apples and potatoes (among other crops) are grown in Adams County.

The Palouse tribe was well established as the dominant indigenous tribe. They traveled the county, ranging their horses. The first white settlers began arriving in 1869. They found the area suitable to raising cattle, horses and sheep. Others followed, seeking land for ranching and farming.

James G. Bennett harvested a small wheat crop near Ritzville in 1880. Russian-German settlers (Volga Germans) who arrived in Adams County in 1883 had farmed wheat in Russia and planted it in Adams County. Seeing their success, other settlers also planted wheat. Adams County wheat farmers soon found that the region was so dry that they must let their fields lie fallow every other year to conserve enough moisture in the soil to raise profitable crops.

In 1897, Adams County produced its first bumper crop of wheat, marking the beginning of wheat farming's eclipse over cattle ranching in the county. The 1897 crop inspired a major influx of new settlers. In 1901 Ritzville exported more wheat than any other town in world -- two million bushels filling nearly 2,000 boxcars. By 1904, Ritzville was the largest initial shipping point for wheat in the United States. By 1909, giddy with prosperity, Adams County published a pamphlet distributed at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. The pamphlet reads, "Adams County, Washington, the bread basket of the world. However, a severe drought from 1928-1931 resulted in dustbowl conditions and many people left the area. The remaining wheat farmers consolidated the abandoned farms and worked thousands of acres to produce a commercial crop.

In addition to its agriculture and livestock ranching, Adams County has some unique recreation and tourism draws. Othello hosts an annual Sandhill Cranes Festival the third weekend in March, where thousands of bird watchers attend. The refuge is an excellent environment for wintering ducks, geese and many other varieties of waterfowl. The Sandhill Cranes Festival takes place at the Wildlife Refuge, and is supported by the Othello Chamber of Commerce. The refuge includes 23,200 acres immediately downstream from Potholes Reservoir, and another 6,000 acres of scattered tracts toward the Columbia River.

Local economy

Adams County started as an agriculturally based area, and is still agriculturally based today. There are both dry-land based crops, such as wheat along with irrigated farming that supports apple orchards and potato fields. Today, Adams County is one of the largest wheat producers in the state.

Being an agriculturally based area, Adams County has various non-durable goods manufacturing, particularly vegetable and fruit processing. The highlight of this type of manufacturing consists of their French fry production, which provides most of the county’s manufacturing employment.

Agriculture, local government and manufacturing (particularly food processing) accounted for more than six in every ten (61.6 percent) covered employment jobs in Adams County in 2016. The transportation and warehousing sector is another major employment category which is heavily dependent on the fortunes of the local agricultural industry.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) the national recession occurred from December 2007 through June 2009. Many counties in Central Washington lost jobs following the recession and even Adams County saw total covered employment dip from 6,834 jobs in 2008 to an average of 6,771 in 2009. Fortunately, total covered employment advanced during each of the next seven years, increasing from 2009 (6,771 jobs) through 2016 (7,975 jobs), a 1,204-job and 17.8 percent aggregate upturn. The local industries that added the most jobs during this timeframe were:

  • Agriculture - Up 673 jobs (50.0 percent)
  • Private health services – Up 152 jobs (29.2 percent)
  • Retail trade – Up 96 jobs (17.3 percent)
  • Local government – Up 77 jobs (5.3 percent)
  • Transportation and warehousing – Up 71 jobs (21.6 percent)

It is apparent that the agricultural industry has accounted for the lion’s share of covered employment growth in Adams County since the recent recession. Specifically, 673 (or 55.9 percent) of the 1,204 jobs added to the local job market between 2009 and 2016 were agricultural jobs.

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Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Adams County Washington state
 Land area, 2010 (square miles) 1,924.98  66,455.52 
 Persons per square mile, 2010 9.7  101.2 

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As previously mentioned, the national recession occurred from December 2007 through June 2009. The effects were manifested in Adams County by a downturn during 2009 in total covered employment (which includes agricultural and nonagricultural jobs) which slipped from 6,834 jobs in 2008 to 6,771 in 2009, a 63 job and 0.9 percent downturn. This downturn was centered in Adams County’s agricultural sector which declined from 1,412 jobs (in 2008) to 1,346 (in 2009), a 66 job and 4.7 percent contraction. But the good news, as mentioned in the Overview section of this profile, is that agricultural employment has been increasing ever since.

Conversely, the job growth picture painted by Adams County’s nonfarm employers since the recession has not been as uplifting. Total nonfarm employment virtually stagnated countywide in the six-year period from 2008 (5,640 jobs) through 2013 (5,600 jobs). The nonfarm economy had a modest growth-spurt in 2014 as employment rose to 5,750, a 150 job and 2.7 percent upturn; led by manufacturing (up 20 jobs), wholesale trade (up 20 jobs), retail trade (up 50 jobs), and private education and health services (up 30 jobs). But in 2015 and in 2016 total nonfarm employment virtually “plateaued;” averaging 5,770 jobs in 2015 and 5,760 in 2016.      

What about recent, monthly nonfarm employment trends? Year over year, not seasonally adjusted total nonfarm employment in Adams County has either stagnated or decreased for the past six months (April through September 2017). Most recently (in September 2017) there were the same number of nonfarm jobs in Adams County (5,850 jobs) as in September 2016.

Statewide, between 2015 and 2016, the labor market provided 96,600 new nonfarm jobs, an annual average increase of 3.1 percent. In September 2017, businesses and government organizations across Washington supplied 3,356,800 nonfarm jobs (not seasonally adjusted), compared to 3,280,700 jobs in September 2016, a 2.3 percent year over year employment increase. The state’s economy has posted year over year nonfarm employment increases for the past 84 consecutive months (October 2010 through September 2017).

Hence, current employment estimates for Adams County indicate a nonfarm market that did not fare well in 2016, and that has been on a weak footing during the past six months of 2017 – versus a statewide economy that has registered year-over-year nonfarm job growth for 84 consecutive months (October 2010 through September 2017). In view of this recent divergence in the economies of Washington and Adams County, developing an employment outlook for Adams County can be challenging – at best. Nevertheless, according to the Employment Security Department’s ten-year nonfarm employment projections, the North Central Workforce Development Area (i.e., Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties) and Washington state nonfarm markets are both expected to grow at an average annual rate of 1.5 percent between 2015 and 2025.

To help supplement ESD’s official, five-county employment projections, the following information, unique to Adams County, is provided. Adams County’s warehousing and distribution industries are primarily dependent on agriculture and these industries may benefit from a recent site selection study completed by The Boyd Company, a nationally recognized location consultant firm. The study identified Ritzville, WA as having the second-lowest distribution warehouse operating costs of 25 cities across the nation.  

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Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

Current labor force and unemployment statistics are available on the Labor force page.

In Adams County, unemployment rates were reasonably consistent in the four-year period from 2005 to 2008 (before the recession). Rates ranged from a low of 6.6 percent in 2008 to the “high” of 7.1 percent in 2005. During the recent recession however, the unemployment rate in Adams County peaked at 10.5 percent in 2010. Average annual unemployment rates have been on the decline ever since. The unemployment rate fell to 10.1 percent in 2011, to 9.1 percent in 2012, to 8.4 percent in 2013, to 7.1 percent in 2014, to 7.0 percent in 2015, and to 6.8 percent in 2016.  Hence, rates during the past three completed calendar years (2014 through 2016) have been comparable to pre-recession rates experienced from 2005 through 2008.

In Washington state, unemployment rates in Adams County were reasonably consistent in the four-year period from 2005 to 2008 (before the recession). Rates ranged from a low of 4.7 percent in 2007 to the “high” of 5.6 percent in 2005. The average unemployment rate (not seasonally adjusted) in the Evergreen state also peaked in 2010 (at 10.0 percent) and it has also been on the decline ever since. Rates during the past two calendar years across Washington (5.6 percent in 2015 and 5.4 percent in 2016) descended to pre-recession levels experienced from 2005 through 2008 (in the four- to five-percent range).

Adams County’s CLF expanded by 85 residents from 2015 to 2016, a modest 1.0 percent upturn. Between the Septembers of 2016 and 2017, the labor force edged upward by 4.8 percent, from 9,133 residents to 9,574 (meaning that 441 more people were in the labor force). The most recent CLF monthly data (for September 2017) show that the number of unemployed Adams County residents shrank by 16.8 percent; from 428 in September 2016 to 356 in September 2017. The result was that the unemployment rate fell from 4.7 to 3.7 percent between the Septembers of 2016 and 2017. This September’s 3.7 percent unemployment rate is the lowest reading for the month of September since electronic records were implemented in 1990 – 27 years ago. Certainly this is a good economic indicator for the local economy. On the downside, the local nonfarm market stagnated between the Septembers of 2016 and 2017. These data indicate that the September 2016 to September 2017 increases in CLF and resident employment numbers were primarily caused by agricultural hiring (versus nonfarm hiring) across Adams County.

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Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department/WITS)

Current industry employment statistics are available on the Covered employment (QCEW) page.

The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) is an industry classification system that assigns every businesses and government organization in America a six-digit NAICS code based primarily on the activities in which that business or government organization is engaged. All business and government organizations are also more broadly categorized into one of 22 two-digit NAICS sectors. Nineteen sectors are in private enterprise and three sectors are in government service – either at the federal, the state, or the local level.

The top five Adams County sectors in 2016 in terms of employment were:

(Source: Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages [QCEW])

 Sector Number of jobs Share of employment
 1. Agriculture, forestry and fishing 2,329  29.2% 
 2. Local government 1,514  19.0% 
 3. Manufacturing 1,070  13.4% 
 4. Health services 673  8.4% 
 5. Retail trade 637  8.0% 
 All other industries 1,752  22.0% 
 Total covered employment 7,975  100% 

Covered employment and wage trends in the 13-year, inclusive period (from 2004 through 2016) were analyzed using the Employment Security Department’s annual average Quarterly Census of Employment and Wage (QCEW) data for the 22 two-digit NAICS sectors in Adams County. Following are some of the findings:

  • In 2016, QCEW data showed that Adams County’s labor market provided 7,975 jobs. Approximately 78.0 percent of all local jobs were in five (agriculture, local government, manufacturing, health services and retail trade) two-digit NAICS industries or sectors. Hence, the Adams County economy is not very diverse. Nearly three of every ten jobs (or 29.2 percent of totaled covered employment) was in the agricultural, forestry and fishing sector, in which the lion’s share of jobs are in the agricultural industry.
  • Between 2004 and 2016, the industry in Adams County which added the most jobs was agriculture. In 2004 local agricultural employers provided 1,836 jobs, 26.7 percent of total covered employment. By 2016 this industry tallied 2,329 jobs and accounted for 29.2 percent of all covered employment countywide. This 493 job and 26.9 percent uptrend indicates not only is the agricultural industry key to the Adams County economy, but that its “share” of jobs in the local labor market has grown over the past eleven years.
  • Between 2004 and 2015, the industry that lost the most jobs was “Other services (NAICS 81).” This sector provided 255 jobs and 3.7 percent of total covered employment in 2004. By 2016, other services accounted for only 90 jobs or 1.1 percent of all covered employment countywide. However, this 165 job and 65.1 percent downturn was primarily caused by a NAICS “code change” directed by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The short story is that many of these jobs were simply moved from NAICS 814 (Private households) to NAICS 624 (Social Assistance) in 2014 – not just in Adams County, but in all counties statewide.  

For historical industry employment data, contact an economist.

Industry employment by age and gender

(Source: The Local Employment Dynamics)

The Local Employment Dynamics (LED) database, a joint project of state employment departments and the U.S. Census Bureau, matches state employment data with federal administrative data. Among the products is industry employment by age and gender. All workers covered by state unemployment insurance data are included; federal workers and non-covered workers, such as the self-employed, are not. Data are presented by place of work, not place of residence. Some highlights:

The largest jobholder group in Adams County in 2016 was the 55 and older age group with 24.5 percent of the workforce. They were followed by the 25-34 age group with 21.5 percent of the workforce.

In 2016, 53.2 percent of all industry jobs were held by men and 46.8 percent were held by women. Industry differences are discussed below:

  • Male-dominated industries included construction (87.4 percent), transportation and warehousing (82.7 percent), utilities (80.7 percent) and wholesale trade (75.0 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (78.8 percent), finance and insurance (74.8 percent), educational services (72.2 percent) and arts, entertainment, and recreation (65.4 percent)

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Wages and income

(Source: Employment Security Department/WITS; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Economic Analysis; U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey)

The Adams County median hourly wage (unadjusted for inflation) was $17.01 in 2016, which was 71.1 percent of the state’s median hourly wage of $23.91. 

In 2016 there were 7,975 jobs in Adams County covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of over $297.5 million. The county annual average wage was $37,308 in 2016, which was 63.1 percent of the state’s average annual covered wage of $59,090. In 2016, Adams County was ranked 27th (out of 39 counties) in the state for its average annual covered wage.

The top five Adams County sectors in 2016 in terms of payrolls were:

(Source: Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages [QCEW])

 Sector Payroll Share of payrolls
 1. Agriculture, forestry and fishing $72,200,965  24.3% 
 2. Local government $60,763,673  20.4% 
 3. Manufacturing $54,533,714  18.3% 
 4. Health services $26,824,600  9.0% 
 5. Wholesale trade $22,498,240  7.6% 
 All other industries $60,706,395  20.4% 
 Total covered payrolls $297,527,587  100% 

In 2016, approximately $297.5 million of wage income was paid countywide. Agricultural employers provided 24.3 percent of it, or $72.2 million. Local government placed second by accounting for 20.4 percent or $60.8 million. Manufacturing ranked third by providing 18.3 percent of total payroll and $54.5 million in wage income. Hence, agriculture, local government, and manufacturing combined provided 63.0 percent of all wages earned countywide. These sectors are definitely the “Big 3” in Adams County, combining to provide 63.0 percent of total covered payroll and 61.6 percent of total covered employment in calendar year 2016.

Personal income

Personal income includes earned income, investment income and government transfer payments such as Social Security and Veterans Benefits. Investment income includes income imputed from pension funds and from owning a home. Per capita personal income equals total personal income divided by the resident population.

Inflation-adjusted per capita personal income in Adams County was $41,962 in 2016. This figure is below the state’s figure of $51,898 and the nation’s figure of $48,112. A personal income trend for Adams County residents over the last 30 years (and especially since 1985) is that the percent of residents’ personal income originating from investments has been shrinking, while the percent of income from transfer payments has been rising. Following are Adams County personal income data, in ten-year increments:

  • In 1985, 60 percent of personal income in Adams County came from earnings, 26 percent from investments and 14 percent from transfer payments.
  • In 1995, 58 percent of personal income came from earnings, 21 percent from investments and 21 percent from transfer payments.
  • In 2005, 62 percent of personal income came from earnings, 16 percent from investments and 22 percent from transfer payments.
  • In 2015, 60 percent of personal income came from earnings, 21 percent from investments and 20 percent from transfer payments.

According to U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts, the median household income in 2015 dollars was $46,564, which was 76.3 percent of Washington’s 2015 median household income of $61,062 (using ACS data from 2011 to 2015). In this period, 16.5 percent of the county’s population was living below poverty level, which was greater than 11.3 percent figure for Washington state and 12.7 percent for the nation, according to U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts.

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(Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis; Washington of Financial Management)

Adams County’s population was 18,728 in 2010. From April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016 the county’s population grew 2.7 percent, less robust that Washington state’s 8.4 percent growth rate.

The largest city in Adams County is Othello with an estimated population of 8,099 in 2016. The second-largest city is Ritzville with an estimated population of 1,660 in 2016. Othello is growing much faster than other, smaller cities in Adams County

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Adams County Washington state
 Population 2016 estimate 19,238  7,288,000 
 Population 2010 (April 1) estimates base 18,728  6,724,543 
 Percent change, April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2015 2.7%  8.4% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Adams County, as a percent, had a much younger age demographic than the state or nation in 2016.

  • Adams County’s population age 65 and older was 10.5 percent in 2016 compared to the state’s 14.8 percent.
  • The largest age group, those under 18 years of age, was 35.7 percent in 2016 compared to the state’s 22.4 percent.
  • The youngest age group, those under 5 years of age, was 10.1 percent in 2016 compared to the state’s 6.2 percent.

Females’ made up 49.1 percent of the population in Adams County in 2016, which is slightly below the state’s 50.0 percent. The county has a much higher percentage of persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, 63.0 percent, compared to the state’s 12.4 percent. White persons who are not of Hispanic descent made up 34.5 percent of the county’s population compared to 69.5 percent of the state’s population.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Adams County Washington state
 Population by age, 2016
Under 5 years old 10.1%  6.2% 
Under 18 years old 35.7%  22.4% 
65 years and older 10.5%  14.8% 
 Females, 2016 49.1%  50.0% 
 Race/ethnicity, 2016
White 90.0%  80.0% 
Black 1.6%  4.1% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 5.4%  1.9% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 1.5%  9.4% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 63.0%  12.4% 

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Over the period 2011 to 2015, 66.6 percent of individuals age 25 and older were high school graduates in Adams County. This figure is considerably lower than that of Washington state (90.4 percent) and the nation (86.7 percent).

Over the same period, 13.6 percent of Adams County residents 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with the state (32.9 percent) and nation (29.8 percent). 

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Useful links

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