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Walther Chips Away at Potato Industry With Blanchard

Cultivating the perfect spud requires top-notch equipment.

Tue November 12, 2013 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

As one of the leading suppliers to Lay’s potato chips, Walther Farms is committed to cultivating the perfect spud.

“We grow for Frito-Lay in eight different states, including Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina,” said Walther Farms manager Jeremy Walther. “We’ve been producing for the company for over 40 years. It’s a great relationship, because of the transparency that both entities provide.”

Recently, the Walther family converted a former hunting reserve in South Carolina, in order to expand their potato production.

“The farm we purchased was a 3,700 acre equestrian farm,” said Walther. “It was family-owned and used as a hunting club. We converted 2,000 acres of the land into tillable acres. The reason we didn’t convert more was because 700 acres of the land is bottom ground along the Edisto River, and the other 1,000 acres is in a conservation easement that doesn’t allow the practice of for-profit agriculture.”

Performing the conversion work themselves, Walther Farms crews spent approximately five months turning forested land into tillable farmland. Blanchard Machinery provided the equipment and partnership needed to perform the varied tasks. The primary machines used were two Cat 349 excavators; two Cat 336 excavators; one Cat 320 excavator; three Cat D6N bulldozers; and two Cat 730 articulating trucks. To clear the land, workers used the Cat 349 excavators. The Cat 336 excavators were utilized to stump the property.

“The Cat dozers were used in a raking application that was performed twice — once to remove the bigger debris, and the second to clean up the smaller debris and somewhat level the ground at the same time,” said Walther. “After the debris was consolidated into piles, or windrows, they were removed with the Cat 320, with a hydraulic thumb, into the off-road trucks and removed from the future irrigated acres to be burned. This was the clearing operation. Afterwards, we crossed the land with a Wishek Disc to cut up any remaining roots, and then crossed with a rootavator that removes all small roots from the soil. We then made a pass with a field cultivator to make our final leveling of the soil. Cover crops were planted to hold the soil in place and prevent wind and water erosion.

“I can’t say enough about the support Blanchard provided throughout the entire project. From the sales team to the service guys, they’re a world-class operation. They would go out of their way by providing services on Sundays, so we didn’t have downtime. When a machine needed maintenance done on their shop floor, they would bring out another machine to take its place. The sandy soil we were working in wears on the equipment quickly. They kept a close eye on things, and always provided superior service.”

According to Keith Wright, territory manager of Blanchard Machinery, “The time constraints were a major issue on this job, which was very labor intensive. The folks with Walther Farms were extremely diligent. They selected equipment that was big enough to carry out the work, which took place rain or shine. At one point they even had planes and helicopters flying overhead, because people wanted to see what they were doing.

“We had people assigned to this job, so they could get there quickly and not waste any time,” said Wright. “We were there morning, noon and night, doing whatever it took to help. I knew they were in a hurry to plant a crop that would condition the soil for potatoes, which have to be rotated every three years. Blanchard Machinery made sure that happened.”

“There were two managers on the project supporting 14 operators running approximately seven-hour shifts per day, six days a week,” said Walther. “We ran two shifts because of the intensity of the operation. Running this type of equipment is not like a farm tractor, and fatigue sets in after just a short amount of time. It’s not that the equipment isn’t comfortable. The cabs are awesome. We just wanted to have all the machines running at peak performance, if the key was in the on position.

“My main concern when we started was that none of our operators had experience in this type of machinery. I had a lot of doubts the first week. The second week, I began to feel we could possibly pull it off. By the third week, my family and I were talking about starting a land clearing company.”

The farm was heavily wooded at the beginning of the project — a mixed bag of planted stands of pine to native stands and hardwood groves.

“Having the right equipment was crucial,” said Walther. “Without the big hoes, we wouldn’t have been able to remove the larger stands. The Cat D6Ns are a versatile machine perfect for raking debris. The six-way blades with the rakes are the ultimate cleaning machine. The off-road trucks removed debris at a record rate, hauling a load every six minutes.

“We are continuing our relationship with Blanchard CAT, as we will soon be starting another clearing project in South Carolina,” Walther said. “Walther Farms looks forward to continuing to work with Blanchard for many years to come.”

The farm, located in Windsor, South Carolina, is part of a community that’s mostly recreational or equestrian based.

“It’s an excellent location to grow spuds, due to the soil type. The land is currently planted into a cover crop to prevent erosion. The spuds we’ll grow in South Carolina are about a 120-day crop. We’ll plant in February and March, and harvest in June and July. The spuds grown will generally be put into a bag of potato chips within eight hours of being pulled out of the ground.”

The process involves harvesting the crop and immediately loading tens of thousands of spuds onto tractor-trailers that take off for the nearest plant. Upon arrival, the spuds have to be washed, sorted, sliced and cooked before being packaged. It’s sophisticated farming that has served Walther well, but continuing the family business is about much more than earning an income.

“My grandpa started farming after he realized working in a factory for GM was not for him,” said Walther. “He started growing vegetables and selling them at the farmers’ market in Detroit. That led to selling spuds to Frito-Lay, and the rest is history. My father and three uncles ran the farm after Grandpa retired and handed it off to three of my brothers, five of my cousins and me. We’re spread all over the country, and all play a certain role in the farm.

“There are challenges to farming, no matter what,” Walther said. “It’s a difficult life at times, with the crazy hours and the uncertainty of weather. When I was a child, I swore I would never work on a farm, but now I can’t imagine what else I would do. It’s truly a blessing to be able to work on a farm with good people. The people who work with us on this project deserve a special thanks. Without them, this would not have been possible.”

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