The way it looks in rural Oregon in this shaky economic world

by Rich Wandschneider

A few years ago, local realtors in Joseph, a town of 1,000 in northeastern Oregon, were clamoring for houses and properties to put on the market; now, "for sale" signs are everywhere.  Yet real estate deals in Wallowa County are stalled because the boom times in Bend, Ore., have come to a grinding halt.

Four-dollar gas makes it tougher on tourism -- but maybe brings more motorcycles. Wheat and hay prices are up, and a new depreciation schedule for trucks makes buying them for farm and business more lucrative. Retail business is down in some Joseph stores; business is up at Wallowa Lake Lodge. Terminal Gravity is bottling another beer, and a new brewery and a distillery will open soon.

If we'd sold all we had three or four years ago and bought Euros or Canadian dollars with the proceeds, we could buy everything back and be sitting pretty today. If we had bought that house or this piece of land, sold a stock or moved to Alaska then…  If, if, if.

Speculation has crept into our daily economic thinking. It's like a speculation ethic has replaced the old work ethic that not too long ago was openly preached about and bragged on as a basic American value. When was the last time you heard someone called a "hard worker"? When was the last time someone you know "made a good deal," "lucked out," "gambled and lost," was a "smart cookie," "should have known," or "cashed in"? Our everyday language says things about values that don't get talked about in church.

I've read recently that we have become addicted to a boom-and-bust economy, that the housing boom followed the high tech boom and bust, and that the current boom in energy, and, by extension, commodity prices, is also doomed to fall sooner or later. The trick in such times is to follow Warren Buffett into the foreign currency market or T. Boone Pickens into oil futures. Or to take it all to the Wild Horse Casino and put it on "red," "even," or "odd."

There is a nervousness in the country that's hard to pin down but easy to see. Retirees are going back to work, home price have plummeted, and political rhetoric moves quickly to fear -- fear of terrorists, immigrants, home heating bills, medical emergencies, economic catastrophe -- the list goes on.

There are a million reasons for the current state of things. But I can't help but think that the move to speculation has a role in it. "Trickledown" economics -- the idea that we should maximize our profits and that this will benefit the whole neighborhood -- will soon be discredited as an economic philosophy.

While many right now are guessing at the next economic boom, others are looking closer to home for a different kind of gain in friendships, simplicity, self-sufficiency, community and self-fulfillment. The "slow food," farmer's market, and organic agriculture movements are real, and local farmers are participating. I went to pick up some new strawberry plants at Alder Slope Nursery this spring, and they were sold out. According to Pam and Randy, their business had moved from fruit and vegetables to ornamentals over the years, but now it's moving back the other way.

I wonder what will happen to all of the second homes in Wallowa County. They might become a drag on the local housing market and pull real estate prices down -- until it's within reach of a new, younger population. If they can't be sold, will their owners visit? I wonder what will happen to our main-street businesses and our local economy: Will close-by tourists from Walla Walla and Lewiston, and Canadians with their more valuable currencies, or motorcyclists from everywhere else pick up the slack? Will storefronts close as they did in the late '50s and again in the early '80s? Will backyards be plowed to gardens and stocked with chickens and pigs; will cows replace the growing horse population?

I think it was Will Rogers who said, "All I know is what I read in the papers." That's what we really need: a Will Rogers to think and talk us through whatever economic and social bubbles we're in, and remind us that none of us are as smart as we think we are, and that no one really knows what's coming next.

 Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Joseph, Oregon.

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