By Sue Moore
Potato farming for Walther Farms has grown from 80 acres in Clio, Michigan, in 1946 to over 13,000 acres throughout the U.S., with headquarters now located near Schoolcraft.
“We grow people by growing potatoes,” is the company’s slogan.
Their 150 team members include the third generation of the Walther family, spread out on farms from Newberry, MI, to South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Colorado and the Three Rivers/Schoolcraft area. Walther uncles, cousins and brothers reside on the family farms, all steeped in the science and passion for farming and their community, according to Jason Walther, CEO of the business.
The grandparents of this clan began farming in Clio, MI, growing vegetables, livestock and selling produce at the historic Eastern Market in Detroit. They had four sons who all helped to grow the farming business.
Now the third generation has taken the reins of the operation.
“Long ago, we realized that the family had a knack for growing potatoes and getting great quality while doing so,” said Walther. “The soil for growing should be sandy loam which drew the operation to Schoolcraft and various plots of land in St. Joseph and Cass Counties where there is plenty of this soil type. Irrigation is very important for better yields and quality.”
Growing potatoes takes three months and then harvesting them takes four to five weeks, said Walther, but delivering them is a year-round task.
“There is a huge demand for locally grown food and the customer relationship with the farmer,” he said. “The American consumer has a renewed interest in how their food is grown and we appreciate that.”
The company sells to potato chip processors and has long standing relationships with these other businesses.
A local customer for Walther potatoes is Meijer. Walther Farms is a partner in Fresh Solution Farms in White Pigeon which distributes to Meijer 52 weeks of the year. This helps to reduce the food miles driven and lowers supply chain costs for the customers.
Growing potatoes has become a high-tech, science based, business.
“The seed potato is grown in Newberry, in the Upper Peninsula,” said Walther. “That keeps the seed isolated, pure, and free of disease. Our fields are all computerized, and even some of the tractors these days can drive themselves. We can run pivots in South Carolina from our offices right here on U.S. 131.”
The company is also beginning to use drones which use infrared images to help them understand their fields so that the proper amount of water and fertilizer can be applied, he said, noting that it’s very important to take good care of the land.
Walther predicts the next big thing in agriculture will be genetics.
“You can debate genetically modified organisms (GMO) but if we are to continue to feed the world population as it increases, the farmer will need biotechnology as the key to our ability to grow enough food,” he said.
Walther Farms also gives back to the community. For the last five years, the Walther Foundation has been contributing food to the back pack program in Three Rivers. Last year, they packed 33,000 meals for 260 kids in the “paw pack” program for the school children.
This year, the Foundation has donated $50,000 to the Schoolcraft Schools to continue the HumaneX program that helps to build teams of educators, equip leaders, and initiate a world class culture that ultimately impacts performance, he said.