MUKILTEO, Wash. — The population of the Pacific Northwest is growing faster than the national average, opening the door for more opportunity for fresh produce marketers.

U.S. Census Bureau data reveal that the population of Washington state stood at 6.7 million in 2010, up just over 14% from 2000. Oregon’s 2010 population of 3.8 million people was up 12% compared with 2000. Both states exceeded U.S. population growth of 9.7% from 2000-10, the Census Bureau said.

Other Northwest U.S. states also showed gains. Idaho’s population of 1.56 million in 2010 was up 21% from 2010, while Alaska’s population of 710,000 was up 13%.

The region’s population growth may help produce operators counterbalance a tepid economy.

“The food industry has been good over the past three years,” said Ron Escene, manager of Botsford & Goodfellow in its Federal Way, Wash., office.

In fact, the industry has done better than expected, considering the arc of the U.S. economy.

“I think the industry is in good shape,” he said. “If we can handle the transportation thing, I think we will be fine.”

Demand for local and organic produce is strong, said Diane Dempster, organic commodity manager with Charlie’s Produce, Seattle.

Still, Escene said restaurant customers are under stress, and are on a shorter leash than five years ago.

One major wholesaler — Colonial Fruit and Produce — closed in the past year and Escene said a couple of small operations could be vulnerable.

Two substantial marketers for the Seattle and Portland markets are Charlie’s Produce and United Salad Co., Portland, Ore.

One market observer said those big wholesalers are growing, both in their distribution network and vertical integration.

For his business, Eric Schindler, with Peterson Fruit Co. Inc., Mukilteo, said changing with the market is important.

“We’re always trying to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “If you don’t do that you don’t stay up with the times and you ending up going out of business.”

Weather markets have created big moves in prices, a reality that Escene says has been exacerbated recent years.

“Weather is more volatile now than it was 15 years ago,” he said.

“We are getting later snows, drier summers, wetter summers,” he said. “It’s tougher to grow now.”

The weather throughout North American has made markets more volatile, operators said.

It is not uncommon for a market to move $25 per carton when there is a shortage, Escene said.

Dale Hayton, sales manager for Valley Pride Sales, Mount Vernon, Wash., said the concerns of growers include the high price of fuel and fertilizer and the issues growers had in planting earlier this spring.

On the buying side, a tough economy has retailers watching their costs.

Hayton said there is some attrition among retail stores and the foodservice outlook is cautious.

“It is a real competitive market place right now,” he said. “Everybody is trying to buy cheap.”

Median household incomes also tended to be substantially higher than the U.S. average in the key Northwest state of Washington. The Census Bureau reports median household income in Washington state in 2009 was $56,479, compared to the U.S. average of $50,221. Meanwhile, Oregon median household income in 2009 was $48,325, slightly less than the U.S. average. Idaho’s median income for 2009 was $44,644.

Hispanic and Asian consumers are important factors in the Northwest. Asian and Hispanic consumer markets each account for about 8% of the Seattle market, Agri-Food Canada reports. Meanwhile, Portland’s Hispanic consumers account for 9% of the market, with the Asian population at 3.5%.

Factors influencing retailers in the Northwest include growth of the organic food market, climbing demand for ethnic food and general societal trends of an aging baby boom population, smaller family sizes and the demand for convenience in meal choices, the report said.

Schindler sees an increase in the variety of fruit sold, in large part because of the influence of ethnic populations in the region.

“I used to never sell pomegranates, but that is now a major item,” he said.

A more diverse customer base, with many ethnic backgrounds, is a driving force in much of the fruit stand business, Schindler said.

“If a Russian person sees a good deal on cabbage, he will buy tons of it,” he said.

Seattle is the main driver in the Northwest U.S, accounting for about 25% of the region’s population of close to 13 million people.