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Brothers must grow potatoes to fulfill chipping contracts
by Lee Juillerat, Herald and News 5/23/10
John Walker calls a mechanic in Klamath Falls as Bill Buckman tries to remove a broken alternator from a “gunny-bagged” tractor.
MERRILL — John Walker, a frown on his face, stands next to a Challenger tractor with a blown-out alternator.
Its hood is open and Bill Buckman, one of Walker’s do-it-all employees, is twisting wrenches trying to free and remove the alternator.
Walker is on his cell phone, talking to a salesman at Peterson Machinery in Klamath Falls.
“This thing is gunny-bagged,” he says.
After a few more barked words and grunts, he snaps the phone shut and stashes it in his pocket. A replacement alternator won’t be available until the next morning. Plans to use the Challenger, which is attached to a combination disk-ripper that can till and mix soil 18 inches deep, to ready a potato field for planting are, well, temporarily gunny-bagged.
“That’s what we’re trying to do, make it just like a flower garden,” he explains of preparing the field, a former lakebed in the panhandle area south of Tulelake and Newell. “Make it a real nice environment for the potatoes.”
The disabled tractor is just another hurdle in what’s shaping up to be a challenging farming season. Worst is the lack of irrigation water. Klamath Project water users were told to expect only a third of their normal deliveries.
H&N photos by Lee Juillerat John Walker, a Merrill-area farmer, watches from his pickup as a tractor prepares a Tulelake-area field for potatoes.
Walker and other growers are scrambling to find alternative fields that don’t depend on water from Upper Klamath Lake. In 2001, his family operation shifted to Butte Valley, but much of that land is now used for strawberries. Walker is the co-owner of Walker Brothers, a Merrill-based family farm that grows potatoes. The Walkers grow 10 varieties of chipping potatoes that are processed for potato chips. Some stay in the U.S. and reappear as Frito-Lay, Kettle Chips or Barrel of Fun potato chips. Others spend six weeks traveling on container ships to countries like South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
John, 57, oversees farming and irrigation. His brother, Bill, 60, is the primary salesman. They’ve been partners since 1972.
“My brother and I decided to do this and cashed in some life insurance policies,” John says. “Went broke the first time in ’75.”
They reorganized and tried again, experiencing ups and downs until their market stabilized in the 1980s, when they began selling contract potatoes.
The Walkers oversee a farming operation that includes 35 to 40 full-time and temporary employees.
“It’s juggling,” John says. “You’ve got to be ready to change.”
Page Updated: Sunday September 19, 2010 01:42 PM Pacific
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