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Service to Idaho potato industry a family affair at Walters Produce

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Warren Walters (center), with sons Jeffrey and Shawn Walters, at the company farm last summer. Both Warren and Shawn Walters served as commissioners on the Idaho Potato Commission during their careers, as did Harvey Schwendiman, grandfather of Jeffrey and Shawn. (Photos courtesy of the Walters family)

At Walters Produce, service to the Idaho potato industry is at its core.

Shawn Walters, a member of the third generation of the family-run company, based in Newdale, ID, currently serves as a commissioner of the Idaho Potato Commission, which follows his service as chairman of the commission in 2008. But he is not the first Walters to have served on the commission, which is celebrating its 75th year in operation in 2012.

“Both my grandfather, Harvey Schwendiman, and my father, Warren Walters, were commissioners on the Idaho Potato Commission as well,” he said. “So I have always known about the commission, but I really gained an appreciation for what it does after having served.”

Mr. Walters said that the IPC makes a “tremendous difference in helping us maintain the image that Idaho has” as the leading potato-producing state, with the most innovative marketing strategies and promotions.

For instance, Mr. Walters pointed to the national television advertising campaign as proof of that statement. And while high-profile initiatives like that are only possible with a substantial budget, he said that the commission is able to get maximum returns on every dollar it spends.

“I believe that as a budget for what we spend, my contribution [assessment] to the commission is some of the best money we spend as a company,” said Mr. Walters.

Furthermore, Mr. Walters said that he has been impressed with the other commissioners he has come to know.

“The insight and passion they have for this industry, as well as their willingness to listen to other commissioners and to outside input to resolve issues, has been outstanding,” he said. “They are careful not to offend or do damage to one part of the industry for the benefit of another. They try to look at the whole picture.”

Mr. Walters recalls being on the farm and spending time with his father from a very young age. When he would become bored, his father would send him out with the truck drivers.

“At age 8, I was a little too young to do much, but I worked full days during the harvest season unloading trucks for the lady drivers,” he said.

By the time he reached age 10 or 11, Mr. Walters was running a cellar operation.

The value of hard work was instilled at a young age, and Mr. Walters said, “I think one of the best things you can do for your family and your children is to instill a strong work ethic. No matter how much knowledge you have, it’s hard to get ahead if you do not know how to work.”

The Walters family first became involved with potatoes back in 1924 when Mr. Schwendiman began farming in the Newdale, ID, area. The winter of that year, he ventured out to California in search of buyers for his product. Business steadily grew in the following years, and Mr. Walters’ father, Warren, was invited to join the business.

“My dad was an in-law and a civil engineer working in Butte, Montana,” said Mr. Walters. “My grandfather offered to let him farm 80 acres of potatoes, so he quit his job on the railroad and came back to Idaho to farm potatoes.”

To be sure, much has changed over the years and through the generations at Walters Produce.

“In my dad’s time, they would harvest by hand in sacks,” he said. “Now, we are using four-row diggers and four-row cross-overs, and a set of equipment can bulk 150 loads per day. Also the precision nature of the entire industry has become so much more professional, and I think we are much better stewards of the land.”

But at the same time, some things have remained the same.

“As a family and as an industry, I think we take a lot of pride in the crops we grow, and we want to maintain that quality image and the reputation that we have built,” he said.

Walters Produce is currently headed by Mr. Walters and his older brother, Jeffrey, who are partners in the business. Jeffrey Walters was practicing law before returning to the family operation in 1982, and was joined in 1985 by younger brother Shawn, who had just graduated from Brigham Young University.

“I always knew I would return to farming after college,” he said. “I had opportunities to work in other industries, but the pull of farming was too great for me to ignore.”

The pride in the family business and in producing Idaho potatoes is ingrained in Mr. Walters and his family.

“As my kids get older, they have scattered to different parts of the country,” said Mr. Walters, who has a son and four daughters, the youngest of which lives at home. “Yet they always keep Idaho in mind. When they go to a store, they are always looking for Idaho potatoes, whether in a store in Boise or Pennsylvania or wherever. They always look for the Idaho potato seal, and they even challenge their friends and neighbors about the taste difference of Idaho potatoes vs. other potatoes. They have made believers out of a lot of people.”

Part of that pride has come from being involved in the family business, said Mr. Walters.

“My three older daughters grew up sorting potatoes and driving trucks,” he said. “One of them was applying for a job back in Pennsylvania, and when she was putting together her résumé, I told her to include the fact that she could drive a 25-ton truck. I thought it would be a good way for her to stand out. After all, everyone has a business degree these days. So she went into her interview, and she was competing against about a half-dozen other applicants for a business position, and toward the end of the interview one of the [interviewers] rolled up his sleeves and said, ‘OK, what is this about driving a 25-ton truck?’ Well, she got the job. I think there is the belief that working on a farm means that you understand the value of hard work. And that is something that is not always available in the work environment.”

Working together on the farm has fostered strong bonds among the Walters family, according to Mr. Walters.

“I have had kids working in harvest for 17 years running,” he said, “and that is something we enjoy together. They all have dreaded it at some point, but they all love it. I mean, to have teenage girls willing to get up at 2:30 in the morning to dig potatoes or drive trucks, that is pretty good.”

But the bonding experience extends beyond the confines of the farm as well.

“Some of our favorite activities are skiing and snowboarding, and we have a boat, so they all grew up waterskiing and wakeboarding,” he said.

Looking back at his career, Mr. Walters said, “I think that when I was younger, I did not have the appreciation for the land that I do today. I am now a lot more cognizant of being a good steward of the land than I was 20 years ago. The way that we work it, fertilize it, and using methods to reduce or eliminate erosion have all become important.

“Every year, when you put that seed in the ground and fertilize it, it’s like a miracle to see it grow into a wholesome food,” he continued. “For most people, it’s a pretty important part of their diets, so it’s fun to be part of that.”