Yamhill County, Oregon is a county in the state of Oregon. It has a population of around 90,000 and an area of 718 sq miles, which makes it, by the standards of Oregon and the United States, not particularly large or small in terms of either land or population. It lies about a half hour's drive southwest of the city of Portland, far enough away that it manages to double both as a rural area and as an extended suburban area of the Portland metro area. It is however, probably not considered very significant in the scheme of things, especially since most people in the Portland area don't give it much thought, unless they are driving to the ocean or going to drink wine.
And yet Yamhill County is interesting both on its own merits and as an example of the diversity and transformation of a single rural county. I have written elsewhere about the culture allure of a typical bucolic slice of rural America, and how such an allure is no longer the issue it once was. The current political climate proved that I was wrong, or hopefully just premature, in this judgement, and that nostalgia is still a potent political force.
Yamhill County is perhaps the best example of idyllic small town America that I have witnessed in Oregon. For some reason, the rural areas that lie East of the Willamette river, which tend to be small towns in mountain valley, take most of the scorn that Portlander's heap on rural areas (and also tend to objectively have larger problems with poverty and income), while the areas west of the Willamette seem to be more optimistic (and also objectively have lower poverty rates). Part of this is because many areas east of the Willamette were old timber towns that are now economically depressed, while the timber industry on the west side was never as vital. Yamhill County is on the west side, and because of the diversity of the economy and (perhaps) the gentle rolling of the plains, seems to be a much better place to live.
There is however, a lot of change, and some problems going along with it in Yamhill County. The first is growth: because Oregon continues to grow, the farming areas around the Portland area are still feeling pressure, despite a strong streak of regional planning. I imagine that many of the people who are moving into Yamhill County are people looking for a bedroom community on their commute to Portland. Another large group of newcomers is Hispanic immigrants. (One of the reasons why this rural county, unlike some rural counties, has one-quarter of its population under 18 years old). Along with the people searching for a bedroom community, much of the Yamhill area has been turned into wine country-with the wine growers being quite a different group, sociologically and politically, than the older cow and corn farmers. So in what an outsider might consider a homogeneous area, there are at least three major groups: the residents of the county from twenty years ago, mostly involved in farming and timber, the Spanish speaking immigrants, and the new yuppie immigrants commuting to professional jobs in Portland, and growing and drinking wine. McMinnville, the county seat and largest city, has a Wal-Mart, a steel mill and a downtown full of wine bars and organic groceries.
None of these changes, as far as I can tell, are a matter of animosity (although since I was chuckling at the wine bars, I can imagine the corn farmers who have been there for generations are, as well). However, they could lead to problems down the road, the largest of which I think is a problem captured succinctly by Yogi Berra: people may stop wanting to go to Yamhill County in the future, because it is too crowded. I took one of Yamhill County's intercity buses to McMinnville on a weekday afternoon, and the road system looked like it was designed for an agricultural county of a generation ago. As is often the case, all the people who are going there to enjoy the country life are going to end up living the suburban life, and a particularly ugly version of it. This is probably doubly going to be the case, since as Portland grows in the next twenty or thirty years, Yamhill County is one of the places it will grow into. Intelligent planning, especially combining the county with Portland's transit system, may allow Yamhill to stay more rural. Another problem that may surface is the fact that much of the young population of Yamhill County is Hispanic, and the wealthy landowners of the county may not wish to pass the property taxes that will allow the county to expand its educational infrastructure. There is also a danger that many of the older residents of the county will be priced out by the influx of commuting professionals.
So even in an advantaged, attractive place like Yamhill County, there are a number of political issues that will need to be solved over the next generation. Luckily, democracy tends to have a way of (eventually) working through these things.
Is a great source for demographic data, although many assertions in this write-up are based on weasalings and interpretations of data that may be overly colored by my impressions.