This year’s Open House Field Day was as much about change as it was showing off our processing plant and fields. We’ve always loved this event because it gives us an opportunity to share the insights and inner-workings of our farm and shed with the people who’ve helped us grow into the sustainable businesses that we are. And from that point of view, our 17th Annual Open House Field Day was like others in the past. However, some of this year’s changes could be summed up by our new company slogan, “Where together we grow”.
We kicked off the Open House Field Day on August 28th with our usual pre-function dinner at Bill and Jan’s house where old and new friends gathered to catch up and enjoy ahi seared by Rabobank’s Ken Hibbard, a delicious prime rib roasted by Jan and a few drinks. The next morning, our guests were treated to hearty, country-style breakfast at Mike and Wanda’s in Tulelake. After Weston recognized and thanked our many customers and partners and Bill thanked our growers, Lexi unveiled the new logo and company motto.
Inspiration for “where together we grow” came from talks Lexi had with employees trying to find out what motivates them to come to work everyday. The overwhelming response was that our employees took ownership of their jobs, and as part of taking ownership, knew that if they didn’t do their job someone else wouldn’t be able to get their work done. “Not only do we grow crops, but we grow friendships, intelligence, partnerships, families, strong communities, personal strength, faith and love,” explained Lexi. “We are all connected and need each other in order to sustain this business.”
Afterwards, Lexi introduced our special guest speakers, the Klamath County Commissioners. Kelley Minty-Morris, Donnie Boyd and Derrick DeGroot. The commissioners discussed some of the challenges they overcame on behalf of the County as well as fielded questions and concerns from the audience. From the need for air service at Crater Lake Regional Airport and bringing a grocery store to downtown Klamath Falls to the LNG pipeline and what can be done to bring Basin ag power rates to being on par with farmers on the Columbia River, the three of them did their best to address the concerns being discussed in the room.
Following breakfast, we headed to the fields to see how the current chipping potato crop looked. In a parade of pickups, SUVs and the few sedans, our crowd emptied out on the streets of Tulelake to the surrounding farmland.
The first field we looked at was a variety of potatoes named 1867s grown by Donnie Heaton. Donnie has been growing chipping potatoes for us for a while, and judging from the sample spuds he dug up he’s doing another fine job this year. Keeping with his normally quiet demeanor, Donnie let the potatoes do the talking. The shovelful of chippers were right on target for the time of year and looked great. He did mention “it’s been a long, hot summer” but as of the day of the field tours, he figured he’d dig that field towards the end of September or early October.
Next we went to a field of 2137 chipping potatoes grown by Staunton Farms. Marc Staunton led the way and told our group a little about his family’s history in the Klamath Basin. His family’s 1927 homestead was not far from the field we were looking at. Though Marc talked about his family’s roots, the main thing he wanted to share was that his message was about sustainability, and as he put it, “Not the grocery store meaning of the word.” Between regulations, labor costs and availability, marketing and pressure from environmental groups, every year it gets harder to farm. However, by being proactive, Mark assured our visitors they’re in it for the long haul. And the chippers? Though Marc tried to downplay our expectations, he showed us another great sample of potatoes.
The third field we visited was a crop of Lamoka chipping potatoes grown by M.D. Huffman Farms. For Matt and his son, Drew, these potatoes represented a new opportunity for them – growing an organic crop. Though extremely adept at growing chipping potatoes, Huffmans had never grown organic potatoes before, and though challenging and presenting a learning curve, they realized they had to get into those markets. So, with “lots of chicken manure and fancy compost” as Matt put it, they’re putting up an amazing crop of potatoes – organic or conventional. We were also shown another field of organic Waneta potatoes they were growing, and it looked as good as the Lamokas.
For our fourth stop, we visited Rob Unruh’s field of Dakota Pearls. The Unruh’s are another long-time Basin farming family, and Rob shared with us the field we were looking at was one his grandfather homesteaded in 1937. Rob’s son and grandfather farm with him, making almost four generations of family farming together. Before growing for Walker Farms, Rob mentioned his family were commercial growers. However, when the fresh market went sideways, times got tough. “Farming is a great life,” he said. “Just a hard way to make a living.” Regardless of markets, Rob’s talent for growing chipping potatoes is evident. The Dakota Pearls (the seed arrived by rail from PD Sproule) were perfect examples of what we’re looking for in chipping potatoes.
Our last stop on the field tour was just on the other side of Turkey Hill from our packing shed at Luke Robison’s field of 2126 chipping potatoes. Luke is a fourth generation farmer, and, if his youngest son goes into the family business, the boy will be the fifth generation. Like our other growers, finding good labor has become a challenge so Luke has what he referred to as a “family farm crew”. Despite the size of his crew, they’re more than capable of getting the chippers from the fields to storage. Speaking of potatoes, Bill mentioned the 2126s were some of the hardest to grow. Not only do they require more fertilizer, the potato plants send out runners across the rows, making it hard to grow good sized tubers. Despite the challenges of 2126s, Luke and his son have produced a great crop of chippers that will be perfect when they finally dig the field.
At this point, you may have noticed something – while we usually focus more on our fields, this year we solely focused on our potato growers. And it fits with our new slogan. A few of the growers talked about the experience and advice Bill and John offered them with the varieties they decided to grow and how to grow them. We, on the other hand, have been able to count on having the expertise of elite growers helping us fill our contracts. In an industry where quality is everything, we can rely on them producing top-quality chipping potatoes for our customers while providing our growers with a contract for fair and reliable price for their potatoes. Just as Paul Sproule helped us, we’re now able to help other farms grow.
After the field tours, we headed to our campus for lunch and to check out the various varieties of chipping potatoes we’re able to supply our customers. Usually we have this part of the Open House Field Day inside the processing plant, but, with shipping season already underway, we had another change – we instead went to Cellar 1. Tables were set up for lunch, and our guests were able to see the progress of the potato varieties.
Another variation from years past is the fact the packing shed was up and running – which meant our guests could actually get a tour from plant manager Matt Thompson and see exactly how the chipping potatoes move through the plant. From spud truck to getting sacked and stacked at the end, Matt showed everyone how the processing plant works as well as a few of the improvements he made to the shed over the summer.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Open House Field Day without our golf tournament and dinner. This year we held both events at Reames’ Country Club. Though the smoke from nearby forest fires threatened to force us to use a backup plan, afternoon winds cleared out the Klamath Basin and ensured we were able to hit the links. After the ceremonial shot of Crown Royal (seriously, they ought to sponsor this event), our guests headed out to the golf course for a shot gun start. And as usual, the competition was fierce!
Once the teams putted their last hole, drinks and dinner was served at the club house. Awards were given to the top two teams as well as last place. So, who took home which honors?
Men’s longest drive: Jarod Marshall (somehow he avoided the camera!)
The Open House Field Day Dinner is also an opportunity for us to raise money for one of our favorite charities – Make-A-Wish. Katie Walker, Weston’s wife, showed a video of a Make-A-Wish recipient who spent a day with the Portland Trailblazers which moved many of the folks in the crowd to tears. On behalf of Make-A-Wish, Katie also presented Gold Dust and Pape’ Machinery with plaques for their generous donations over the years. As part of her presentation, Katie also shared the history of our fundraising for Make-A-Wish over the years.
The first year Gold Dust used the Open House Field Day as a charitable event was 2013, and that year the crowd raised $1,900 which Gold Dust matched to bring the total to $3,800. Over the years, our guests have been more generous, raising thousands of dollars for Make-A-Wish. This year, however, not as many people were able to make the trip out for the Open House Field Day, but that didn’t keep those who were able to make it from breaking all of our records. By the time the pledging was done, $30,490 had been raised along with 135,000 airline miles! To put that in perspective, last year Gold Dust and our guests raised $21,814, which broke the previous year’s record of $18,381.
That kind of generosity is what helps not only our farm grow, but helps out people in our community. Each wish costs around $7,000 to grant. To put that in perspective, that is approximately four wishes we and our guests are able to grant – wishes for local kids like Krue Johnston, whom Jan and Kay Ratliff recently helped. We are constantly amazed and humbled by the charitable nature of the people and businesses we work with. Thank you to all who pledged.
Despite the smoke, we had a great time this year and hope all of our guests did too. We understand it takes a lot of planning to travel out here, but Tricia, Weston, Bill and John appreciate everyone who can make the trip out. A big thank you to everyone who was able to make it, and to the folks who weren’t able to attend we hope to see you next year!