Food Manufacturing and Processing Clusters

Published on Jan 24, 2019

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

Food Manufacturing and Processing Clusters

The food processing and manufacturing cluster as defined by Harvard’s U.S. Cluster Mapping Project comprises familiar industries like soft drink manufacturing (81,000 jobs nationwide) and breweries (71,000 jobs) as well as niche industries like creamery butter manufacturing (just 2,800 jobs).

With new specialty and health food products entering the market seemingly every day, this is a growing cluster—one of the fastest-growing, in fact. And it’s more than just California’s wineries, Colorado’s breweries, and Wisconsin’s dairy and cheese plants.

Emsi provided data on the top-employing states for major clusters for Area Development magazine’s 2019 Select Sites Directory issue. As Area Development referenced in a newsletter on Tuesday, in nearly every state with a significant food processing and manufacturing presence, the cluster grew by double digits from 2014 to 2018.

Seven of the 10 states with the most food processing and manufacturing jobs saw at least 11% growth from 2014 to 2018. Washington led the top 10 with 17% job growth, followed by Texas at 16%.

States outside the top 10 have also seen huge growth in food processing and manufacturing. New Hampshire jumped from under 2,500 jobs in this cluster in 2014 to nearly 3,200 in 2018, a 32% uptick. Arizona saw a 31% increase. Connecticut (29%), South Carolina (28%), and Colorado (23%) weren’t far behind.

Here are a few highlights for the top states—and the top metros—driving food processing and manufacturing cluster growth.

Washington (17% Growth)

The state best known for its apples also produces and exports tons of wheat, milk, and potatoes. Frozen and canned food products are a major player in Washington, too.


Washington’s largest industries in the food processing and manufacturing cluster are frozen fruit, juice, and vegetable manufacturing (over 6,000 jobs, down 3% the last five years); wineries; breweries; and fruit and vegetable canning. Brewery jobs have shot up 79% in the last five years to over 2,400, and wineries employ more than 4,000 workers.

Coffee and tea manufacturing (1,900 jobs; 33% growth) is also an emerging industry in the Evergreen State.

More than a third of the state’s food manufacturing jobs are in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro. Since 2014, food processing and manufacturing cluster jobs have shot up 30% in Seattle, the second-fastest growth rate among the 10 largest metros behind Phoenix (33%).

The Kennewick-Richland MSA houses 5,200 jobs in this cluster, but has seen just 5% growth since 2014.

One note on the relative size of food processing and manufacturing in Washington (and generally elsewhere): While employment growth has been strong, the cluster made up just 1% of the state’s $487 billion gross regional product (GRP) in 2017.

Texas (16%)

The third-largest state for food processing and manufacturing with 60,000 jobs, Texas’ cluster is largely fueled by soft drink manufacturing (8,100 jobs) and frozen specialty food manufacturing (4,800 jobs).

However, brewery jobs have skyrocketed 77% since 2014, making it the third-largest food processing and manufacturing industry in the state in 2018 (3,900 jobs).

And while the Dallas and Houston metros have larger food manufacturing scenes, Austin’s food manufacturing cluster expanded 56% from 2014 to 2018—the fastest growth rate among the nation’s largest 75 MSAs.

California (11%)

California is the unquestioned leader in food processing and manufacturing, with nearly three times as many of these jobs as its nearest competitor, Illinois.  Over the last five years, the cluster grew 11% to over 173,000 jobs. That equates to 1 out of every 7 food processing and manufacturing jobs in the country. 


Wineries make up 38,000 of these jobs, followed by fruit and vegetable canning (13,700).

Santa Cruz (35% growth) and San Diego (33%) are the fastest-growing California metros for food manufacturing.

How the Food Processing and Manufacturing Cluster Ranks

Why should communities care about food manufacturing and processing?

Economic development organizations often focus their attention and investment efforts on traded or basic industries—those that export products or services to other markets and bring in outside income.

Traded industries, as the U.S. Cluster Mapping Project describes, are the engines of regional economies. And few of these export-oriented industries have performed as strongly in so many states recently as food processing and manufacturing.

Of the 51 traded industry clusters that Harvard’s Michael Porter developed and tracks (and which Emsi includes in our economic development research platform), food processing and manufacturing tied with video production and distribution for second in percentage job growth the last five years, at 12%.

Only trailers, motor homes, and appliances (14%) shot up faster from 2014 to 2018, and it accounts for about a tenth of food processing and manufacturing’s employment.


Food processing is a vital industry for many more states than listed in this report. Do you have the data you need to navigate major changes in your regional clusters? To see detailed food processing and manufacturing data for your state or to learn more about Emsi’s data, contact Josh Wright at