Running Ahead

Walker Brothers Farm of Malin, Ore.

Published in the August 2015 Issue Published online: Aug 16, 2015 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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It takes a certain amount of fortitude, ingenuity and good old-fashioned moxie to make something last. It doesn’t hurt to have a little stubbornness and humility thrown into the mix, either. Thankfully for the Walkers of Malin, Ore., members of the family seem to possess those traits in spades.

Inauspicious Beginnings

Perhaps the first time that mettle was genuinely tested came 30 years ago, when a tough year for the fresh market meant that the 600 acres of potatoes grown by brothers Bill and John Walker would do little more than cost the farm money.

“I swore off potatoes,” Bill says now. “I was never going to raise them again.”

However, a family friend swooped in to help the Walkers secure the necessary capital and lines of credit to continue growing potatoes. In 1986, they grew, harvested and sold their first crop of chip potatoes. “A lot of times when you raise fresh potatoes, you get to deal with somebody else’s finger on the scale,” says Bill regarding the decision to switch to the chip sector. “I wanted to be master of my own ship.”

Today, Walker Brothers has grown to a sizable company with a clear vision for the future. Bill serves as manager of sales and financing operations; John is the senior manager of the farming operation and oversees crop production and mechanical operations. Gold Dust Potato Processors, the company under which the family brokers and markets its product, processes potatoes from several growers in southern Oregon’s Klamath Basin. Gold Dust’s biggest domestic customers are Frito-Lay and In-N-Out Burger; about a quarter of Gold Dust potatoes are shipped to Asian markets.

The Next Generation

Weston Walker had had enough. The college years at Oregon State University had been good to Bill’s youngest son, but at the ripe old age of 20, he was rearing to put his talents and knowledge to work to improve the family business. His older cousins and siblings had put considerable time and effort into the farm, but each had ultimately chosen to pursue different career paths. So, armed with the oodles of confidence imbued to youth, Weston Walker set off on a whirlwind, two-and-a-half-week Asian tour to prove to his father and uncle that he could cut it as a potato salesman.
“Well, he did it,” recalls Bill now. “His mother and I were scared to death. We made lots of inroads with prospective customers because we kept calling, wondering where our little boy was. And he came back with contracts.”

After a couple years of successful contracting, Weston realized that, with the export business booming, the operation was going to need the expertise of someone well-versed in drawing up contracts and handling money. So, while on a business trip to Asia in 2006, he called his sister, Tricia Hill, who was practicing law at the time, and pitched the idea of coming back to the farm to her.

“I got off the phone and told my husband we had about 15 minutes to decide,” says Tricia. “I figured that was how long it would take Weston to get a hold of Dad. Sure enough, 15 minutes later Dad called and said, ‘I hear your brother’s hired you.’

“Weston’s pretty convincing.”

Tricia and her young family returned to the Klamath Basin four months later, and they’ve never regretted it.

Planning Ahead

Throughout the history of Gold Dust and Walker Brothers, a culture of innovation and forward thinking has permeated the company. They have been deeply involved in trade associations through the years: Bill has served in various capacities with the U.S. Potato Board; John has sat on the USDA’s Oregon-California Potato Committee and is currently a member of the California Wheat Board; and Weston currently sits on the U.S. Potato Board’s International Committee. The Walkers have also been active supporters of the formation of the Klamath Settlement Agreement, an accord meant to achieve the best use of water among the various water users in the Basin.

Customer service has also always been a priority. That has paid off in the past year as the Walkers, like many growers, were forced to deal with the labor slowdowns at West Coast ports on which their export business depends.

“We have great customers, and they worked with us and understood the situation we were in,” says Bill “Because of the great communication of [Gold Dust business manager] Lexi Crawford and her group, we were still able to meet our obligations.”

“My dad has a huge entrepreneurial spirit,” says Tricia. “He’s always willing to try the next thing to see if he can find something to improve the farm.”

John Walker was unavailable for interview, but, says Lexi Crawford, “John is such a hands-on manager. He always strives for perfection. I think his years of experience and constant interest in trying new techniques and technologies speak for themselves.”

“My dad and John are such a strong senior generation,” Tricia says, “yet they saw the need to bring in the junior generation. Our up-and-coming managers are all under the age of 40. There was a big effort to go out and seek those people, and now we’ve got a good base to continue the farm for another 40 years.”

Here’s hoping it does continue. The industry needs folks like the Walkers.