Klamath Basin Growers Connect with Processors

Published online: Sep 04, 2018 Articles
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Source: Herald and News

Malin, Ore. -- John Walker, chief operating officer of Gold Dust, picked up a potato during a stop at grower Luke Robison’s field and bit into the tuber like an apple.

“You can eat ‘em cold or you can eat ‘em hot,” Walker said, noting farmers never go hungry.

The field stop was just one of several on the list during the 18th Annual Gold Dust & Walker Farms tour last week, a tour bus field trip that provided about three dozen growers — both chip and fresh market — and processors the chance to see the progress on potatoes and connect with growers before harvest begins.

Representatives from Frito-Lay, Luke’s Organic, and Kettle — all potato chip processors — were on hand to tour the fields and talk to growers Tuesday.

Tour attendees met early at Mike and Wanda’s Restaurant in Tulelake for a history of farming in the Basin with Todd Kepple, manager of the Klamath County Museum, before heading out to the fields to see, feel and taste the spuds.

“I really think it’s great for these processors to come up here and look at our potatoes, talk to the growers, get a chance to see what the growers are faced with, and see what this side is,” said Bill Walker, president and chief executive officer at Gold Dust Potato Processors.

Roots in the Basin

John and Bill are brothers and longtime farmers who started in the potato farming business in the mid-1970s. Their families are involved in various aspects of the business, with Gold Dust as the brokerage arm that’s owned by J&W Walker Farms, Inc. Tally Ho Farms Partnership (also known as Walker Brothers) is the name of the farming entity and is unrelated to Gold Dust except that some of the partners of Tally Ho also are shareholders in J&W Walker Farms, Inc.

Ten to 15 percent of Gold Dust Potatoes are shipped to In-N-Out and 25 percent are exported, according to Lexi Crawford, junior vice president of Gold Dust Potato Processors.

Bill Walker emphasized the diversified role of growers is ever-changing in the 21st century.

“We’re no longer just growers,” Walker said. “The amount of book work and the other side of it — it’s growing. We’ve got be more business people and more book work-oriented folks than ever before.”

Another attendee of the tour noted a USDA statistic that more people can be fed off of one acre of potatoes than any other food source.

The obstacles the potatoes face from the ground up to the table are many, according to growers, and they can change year to year.

Inspect what you expect

Potato grower Rob Unruh knelt down in the sandy soil on one of his fields on Tuesday morning, digging up a pile of smaller potatoes with his bare hands as growers and processors looked on.

The field stop was just one of several on the list during the 18th Annual Gold Dust & Walker Farms tour, a tour bus field trip that provided about three dozen growers — both chip and fresh market — and processors the chance to see the progress on potatoes and connect with growers before harvest begins.

“On these tours, everybody gets to go out and show off their really great crop,” Unruh said.

On one of the tour stops, Unruh stood outside the bus facing growers and processors, and pointed to two lush spud fields on a hill nearby.

But lush isn’t the way he described the field of Dakota Pearl potatoes directly behind him, which was planted in early May.

“This is also the other part of farming potatoes,” Unruh said, noting the field he was standing in wasn’t “that great of a crop.”

Braving the elements

Between a 45 mph wind that whipped the crop so it laid flat, to more than a month of thick smoke, the potatoes he dug up aren’t the supreme crop he’d hoped for.

This field is also one of the toughest pieces of land he owns, he said.

“This is just course sand, goes right through your fingers and unfortunately nutrients and stuff go through it, too,” Unruh said, picking up some and sifting it through his fingers.

Even with the compost he added to the field, Unruh’s Dakota Pearl spuds couldn’t compete with unpredictable weather and smoke.

“I think without the weather issues and the smoke, this crop looks twice that size,” Unruh said. “No matter what a farmer does, you still come up with stuff that’s not right.”

“This is the bad part of being a farmer,” Walker said. “Some days you’re the bug and some days you’re the windshield.”

But with his additional fields, it’s not a major loss overall, either, for Unruh. He like many in the crowd of growers is as resilient as they come.

Unruh’s father co-signed a loan for him when he was 13 to farm potatoes, and he hasn’t looked back since. A longtime potato farmer, and known for farming hard-to-farm soil, Unruh is looking forward to selling the crop as chip potatoes to processors, even if the yield is about 200 sacks short.

“I think for the process end of it, I think they’re going to work great for the people who want them and don’t want to see them all oversized,” he said.

“But are they going to pay me a premium for them?” he laughed, and others noted probably not.

The back-and-forth interactions between growers and with processors is an integral part of the tour, according to Walker.

“Monetarily we all do it to try and make a living,” Walker said. “It doesn’t hurt when the Stauntons were standing next to their potatoes or Matt Huffman was standing next to their potatoes and other growers are saying, ‘Boy, those are nice,’ ‘Boy, there’s a lot of strength in the field,’ or consoling Rob when he was talking about his field that got wind-wipped and then the smoke came ….”