Hilderbrand Lane slices through acres of wheat fields as it heads east out of Wasco, a tiny town burrowed into Oregon’s poorest county. Stubble from summer’s harvest bristles in every direction. Nothing interrupts the tawny expanse until the road rises to expose hundreds of wind turbines. Tall and shimmery in the midday haze, they overpower the landscape, striking, unsettling.
“I like em,” says John Hilderbrand, 81, a straight-talking but jocular wheat farmer who lives along his namesake road in the two-story house his grandfather built in 1900. “They’re grinding out dollars.”
Hilderbrand, the first in Sherman County to allow turbines on his land, reaps about $30,000 a year in lease payments. And the checks come without fail, he says, unlike the income from his wheat operation, which is squirrelly as the weather.
“Fact is, I don’t see any disadvantages,” says Hilderbrand, who likes talking about the wind almost as much as spinning yarns about rogue bears, stuffed rats and clueless urban slickers who insist on calling the county’s rich glacial silt “dirt” not “soil.”
In 2000, Sherman County had no turbines. Now it’s home to one of the highest concentrations in the Columbia River Gorge, where a wind-energy boom is under way.
The projects in the ground so far represent an investment of close to $1 billion, and they’ve begun to pump millions of dollars into this county of 1,700 residents, with jobs and tax and lease payments.