Main Street: Backfill

Rich Wandschneider

This morning on the radio a woman talked about the dive in business at her New Hampshire motel that started with Sept. 11 and deepens with the current recession. A technical worker from New York said that after 30 years of life in the city - marrying, raising kids, working - he was going to have to move to Cleveland or Columbus, and a planned for retirement at 55 was looking more like 65. A blue collar worker had sympathy for the Enron employees who have lost their pensions, but none for stock market speculators who lost their bets.

The shenanigans of corporate sleeze balls and the financial bad news grab headlines across the country, and the unemployment charts show Oregon high, and, as per usual, Wallowa County at the high end of Oregon.

Meanwhile, people across the country cope. The New Hampshire Motel lady is leaning on savings and looking for outside work for her or her husband; the New Yorker will have to work a little longer before retirement; and the blue collar guy never really counted on doing anything but what he's doing anyway. One youngster - aged 27 - was happy that the downturn was happening now, while he was young and before he had family obligations. He figures that the business cycle will now run in his favor for his working career. Although fewer and fewer of us remember the capital D "Depression," the stories of helping hands and making do survive. And maybe the stories of folk who figure out how to make do with what is left and close at hand are the proper antidotes to the stories of distant stock market failures and global hi jinx.

It's kind of like "backfill." You use local dirt to fill local holes. That's what Colleen Whelen of "Restoration Gardens" and Beth Gibans of "Backyard Garden" in Joseph are doing. Colleen has a couple of acres planted to all manner of vegetables and a few fruits. Some customers contracted with her this spring for weekly deliveries of fresh locally and organically grown produce. The rest of us buy from her at the Saturday market hosted by Wildflour Bakery in Joseph. Beth joins Colleen on Saturdays with her own fresh offerings, grown in a neighbor's backyard garden.

Gene Thiel takes his organic spuds and carrots to the Saturday Market in Portland - and to several of the finer eateries in Portland. The Oregonian carried a story on the "Potato Man" in the Food Day section of the paper last week. This is a sweet story because Gene was one of several growers who produced seed potatoes in Wallowa County several years ago. I think that the seed spud business, geared to large commercial growers and the attendant agricultural and political pressures, has come and gone from the county, but the work of a dedicated grower finding the right spuds for this ground and a niche market is being rewarded.

Colleen tells me that she is trying to find Imnaha fruit growers, which reminds me that 30 years ago Garret Lovell and Jack Harshfield used to sell Imnaha produce out of the backs of pickups in Joseph. And Lester Kiesecker hauled melons to us from Troy. There are almost certainly tons of fruits going to waste in the county right now. An invitation for someone to come up with a peach wine or plum brandy, applesauce or apple jack that carries a Wallowa County label.

Terminal Gravity is doing a great job of exporting Wallowa County water as beer. Alan Klages tells me that he is investigating the possibility of growing once famous Klages Barley for malters. And I remember that old timers here grew their own hops. More room for backfilling. The McMinniman brothers have made a serious reputation and, I imagine, some serious dollars by recycling old Portland area buildings and adding food and beverage. They started with micro breweries, and have at least fifty of them in the Portland area, but the old county poor farm at Gresham now produces wines and brandy and invites overnight guests for dinner. One can think of a few vacant buildings in Wallowa County...

I know that the McClarans and the Morses are growing "Oregon Country Beef," and that there is still a mobile slaughter unit that comes to town. Jerry's processes farm meet and wild game. Couldn't we figure out way to eat local grass fed beef without having to buy an entire animal and jump through a bunch of hoops on the way to the table?

While many are looking at the Wallowa Country's considerable natural resources, and figuring out ways to make a meal or make a living, Cindi Aschenbrenner looked at all the oft-times vacant cabins around the lake, and formed Wallowa Lake Vacation Rentals. Her little company employees a handful of people besides keeping her busy. And she didn't need a grant, a huge bank loan, or enabling legislation.

There is still a lot of fertile ground in Wallowa County. Congrats to the folks who are working it, and good luck to any of you out there with ideas for turning an old piece of ground anew, or planting a new idea in this old soil.

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