Pomeroy is down the highway from Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. This part of the Palouse region is wheat and barley country. The landscape is hillier, drier, the terrain more wide open and empty. This time of year, the fields are brown with golden stubble. It's both a pretty and a lonesome land. There are few farms, there is little traffic, and the car radio sometimes turns to static.
Driving through Pomeroy on Highway 12, the main route between Walla Walla and Lewiston, Idaho, you get the sense of a community in distress. It's almost a shock after passing through towns further west, places like Dayton, the Columbia County seat next door, or Waitsburg and Walla Walla with their wineries, bistros, great architecture, craft breweries, and B&Bs. They carry the whiff of prosperity. By comparison, Pomeroy looks like it's closed for business.
Pomeroy has a lovely old courthouse, but it needs sprucing up. The storefronts along Main Street are drab. Some have architectural charm and potential, but there are too many closed antique shops and empty stores for the town to have curb appeal. There's a food bank and a social service agency on the main drag. Whatever agri-tourism miracles are taking place down the road, Pomeroy isn't sharing in them.
Part of that may be image. There's nothing that says a working farm town has got to be attractive to tourists or cater to foodies. Wheat prices are sky high and some farmers are doing well. Besides, wheat doesn't have the cachet or sex appeal that grapes bring. I recently asked an Eastern Washington farmer what it would take to boost wheat country's tourist appeal. "The only way to get the public excited about wheat," he replied, "is have a naked woman run through the field." Hard-partying Bacchus, the god of wine, is associated with nymphs, not bowls of flour.
For the record, I saw no naked women in Pomeroy. Few clothed people, either. Pomeroy is the seat of Washington's least-populous county, Garfield. (Not, by the way, to be confused with the town of Garfield in Whitman County.) Pomeroy is the county's only incorporated town, with a population of about 1,400. The county's entire population is only 2,350, only 350 more than you need to start a county in the first place. While Washington state grows by leaps and bounds, Garfield ranks 39th out of 39 counties in growth. Deaths outnumber births. The densest community appears to be the cemetery.
Not only is Garfield the least-populous county, it is poorer, older, less educated, and less diverse than state averages. Median age in Washington is 36.6, in Garfield County it's 45.3. The state median income is nearly $57,000, in Garfield it's $35,000. Only 29 percent of adults in the county have a college degree, compared with 36 percent statewide. Minorities make up only 2.3 percent of the population, compared with over 23 percent statewide. There are no black people – zero – in Garfield County. And unlike other eastern agricultural counties, the hispanic population is miniscule.
Garfield, like many rural areas, is deceptive. Looking at the landscape, you'd think everyone is a farmer, but agricultural employment is tiny. Today's modern wheat farms employ few people. They tend to be large, having gobbled up smaller family farms that, today, are economically marginal. "Get big or get out" is the rule. In addition, the government pays farmers not to grow crops. As a result, only 7 percent of Garfield County's workforce is employed in agriculture, forestry (Umatilla National Forest takes up a chunk of the county), and fishing. Garfield's neighboring Palouse counties – Columbia, Whitman, and Asotin – are all in the single-digit range when it comes to ag jobs.
A lot of grain moves through the county on barges working their way through the locks at the lower Snake River dams. The county boomed during the dam-building days, and the traffic is still an agricultural lifeline. Few people here would want to see the dams come down. But the amount of grain moving through has been in decline over the past decade. Still, there doesn't seem to be much sense that Garfield is interested in retooling to a post-dam, pro-salmon link on the yuppie food chain. It's too dry to capitalize much on biofuels, but the hills hold some promise for wind energy.
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