As Oregon's economy continues to falter with the rest of the nation, news isn't all bad for residents of Eastern Oregon. Umatilla and Morrow counties both boasted November jobless rates below the state average.

But that's likely to change in the coming months, said Dallas Fridley, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department. He expects unemployment numbers for the east side to spike above the statewide average as soon as December or January.

The reason? Agriculture, Fridley said.

"Some of it is timing," he said. "We are seeing a bit of a timing issue, where we are at our best rates this time of year."

Though harvest for most farms completed months ago, extra jobs remain for the processing of those goods, Fridley said. When that finishes later this winter, more people will find themselves out of work, he said.

Oregon's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent in November - a five-year high. Umatilla and Morrow counties fared better, posting rates of 7.6 percent and 6.9 percent, respectively. Besides agriculture, Fridley said the two counties also have several other factors keeping their economies relatively stable.

In Umatilla County, many workers are protected by employers that can withstand economic forces better than most, such as government jobs. The county includes dozens of state offices, one college, two prisons and the Umatilla Chemical Depot - each offering relatively stable employment to hundreds of residents.

Morrow County is home to a number of industrial ventures through the Port of Morrow, which continued to grow in 2008 despite a bleak economy.

Tony Wendel, an Oregon Employment Department workforce analyst based in Pendleton, said those factors shield the region from the huge ups and downs a larger metro area might see during a boom followed by a recession.

"I think for Umatilla County especially, it's because we have a pretty broad industry base," he said. "We're not so dependent on any one industry getting hit."

Last month's jobless numbers varied widely across rural Oregon. While Umatilla and Morrow counties ranked among the state's lowest for unemployment, nearby Grant County wasn't so lucky. The unemployment rate there jumped to 13.2 percent last month - its highest rate in 10 years, and up from 9.4 percent in September.

A big reason for that spike came in late September and early October with the temporary closure of the Prairie Wood Products sawmill in Prairie City, which left about 45 people without jobs.

That might not sound like much, but those events can be magnified in a county as small as Grant, said regional economist Jason Yohannan.

"In Grant County, there's a much smaller economy and a much smaller labor force," Yohannan said. He described bad economic news as "piling on" in the region.

"This is on top of a separate mill closure that occurred more than a year ago," he said. "This is just an ongoing deterioration of the job market."

Because of the cyclical nature of Eastern Oregon's economy, Fridley said he expects Umatilla and Morrow counties to see double-digit unemployment by early next year. And though other facets of the local economy like manufacturing are starting to falter, the region's agriculture base should continue to provide a cushion, he said.

"I think the industry is pretty well established in terms of using local products," Fridley said. "The cows aren't going to quit milking. The wheat isn't going to quit growing."

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