Michael Johnson / The Livingston County News
Doug Walker, left, and his father Don, right, owners of the Walker Farm in Springwater, were recently named the farm of the year by the Livingston County Chamber of Commerce. The Walkers will be honored March 22 at the Chamber's annual Farmer/Neighbor Evening.
Chamber to honor Walker Farm at annual dinner
Don and Doug Walker never gave much thought to a career other than farming.
“I never thought about anything else. I never had a job interview in my life,” said Don Walker, who with his son Doug are the fourth- and fifth-generations to run the family dairy farm on Walker Road in Springwater.
Doug Walker began working on the farm when he was 9 years old. He earned $3 a week for cleaning stalls and moving cows. Since the mid-1990s he started getting more involved and in 2000 became a partner in the farm with his father.
“There was never any doubt that this is what I wanted to do,” Doug Walker, 37, said. “It’s always felt right. It’s what I do.”
The Walker Farm was recently named the 2013 Livingston County Farm of the Year by the Livingston County Area Chamber of Commerce and Livingston County Farm Bureau.
“It is with great pleasure that we recognize the Walker Farm for its stewardship of the land, your integrity and business practices, your leadership in the agriculture community and commitment to the mission of the Livingston County Chamber, which promotes business and quality of life,” Carol Carey of Community Bank, Chamber event chairwoman, said in announcing the award Feb. 15 during a surprise visit to the farm.
Night celebrates farms
Carey presented Doug Walker with balloons and a bouquet. She was accompanied by John Quinlan, chairman of the board of directors of the Chamber, and Les Cole of Commodity Resources Corp.
The Walker family will be honored — and agriculture celebrated — March 22 during the 16th annual Livingston County Farmer/Neighbor Evening at Genesee River Restaurant and Reception Center, 134 North Main St., Mount Morris.
“Our goal is to recognize agriculture as the No. 1 industry in Livingston County and to bring farmers and neighbors together,” Carey said.
The event begins 5 p.m. when a display area opens, the dinner follows at 7 p.m. The evening’s guest speaker will be Patrick M. Hooker, director of agribusiness development for Empire State Development.
Tickets are available through the Chamber, by calling 243-2222.
The family business
Doug Walker does not want his family’s farming legacy to end. He hopes to pass it along to his own children, though that’s still a few years away — their toys were scattered around an office space adjacent to the milking parlor on the day of the Chamber announcement. Walker and his wife Treva have a son, Orion, age 3, and daughter, Pearl, age 6.
The Walker family traces its roots in Springwater to 1819, and have been farming since 1865 at the farm on Walker Road, near the Livingston-Steuben County border. It is the southernmost farm to receive the Farm of the Year honor.
Doug Walker and his father have been partners in the farm since 2000.
“A family business is an entirely different dynamic,” said Doug Walker, whose sister, Donna Walker Donnan, is a milk inspector. “It’s not something that happens without a plan.”
Everything is ‘bigger’
In the past five years or so the Walker Farm has gone through a big expansion. In 2002, the farm consisted of a single barn. It is now a complex of four barns around a central milking parlor, with room to expand still further.
“My dad liked to say if you’re sitting still you’re going backwards,” said Don Walker, who like his son, started with his father, Burl, who in 1957 installed one of the first milking parlors in Livingston County.
Burl Walker died in 2002, before the farm’s big growth spurt.
“Everything has gotten bigger. The biggest change is it’s about managing people as much as the hands-on stuff,” Doug Walker said. “Agriculture policy has really pushed farms to get bigger. We don’t have a fantastic return, so the best policy is to get bigger.”
Other challenges include the demand for corn, especially in the ethanol industry, which has pushed up feed prices — which then get passed on through higher prices for consumers.
“I’m happy for the corn growers, don’t get me wrong. They had it tough for a long time,” Don Walker said. “But corn is expensive.”
As a result, the Walkers grow about 75 percent of their own feed — corn and alfalfa — on 1,100 acres. They bought another farm two years ago, own land in Wayland and rent additional land from Canadice to Canaserega.
“When land is available and offered to you, you pick it up and farm,” Don Walker said, sharing another of his father’s lessons.
Twenty years ago, the farm was milking 80 cows with four full- and part-time workers. Today, the farm has 800 cows, with 700 active in milk production. The Walkers employ 11 full-time employees “that are the backbone of the operation,” Doug Walker said.
The Walkers also actively work the farm.
“The size we’re at still allows us some hands-on operations,” Don Walker said. “I still plant all the corn. Doug does all the chopping. So we’re involved in the equipment and the land.”
Never a typical day
Don Walker studied at Alfred University for two years before coming back to the farm.
“There was a yearning, wanting to be outside,” he said. “I never get tired of it. Not all the days are the same.”
Mornings usually start with a review of cow health with the herdspeople, who spend the most time with the cows. In winter there’s a lot of maintenance to catch up on and a lot of work depends on weather. Come spring, there are crops to be planted and new duties to follow.
Everything, though, starts with the cows. On their farm, most are Holsteins; others are Jerseys, with one Dutch-belted.
The milking parlor runs about 22 1/2 hours a day. Milk from the Walker Farm typically goes to Polly-O in Campbell, a division of Kraft Foods, but it can go as far away as North Carolina depending on the time of year and needs.
“It used to be on Sunday afternoon you could wander around the farm and be the only one here,” Doug Walker said. “Now, there’s not a time when no one is here.”
A Chamber committee considered five criteria when reviewing Farm of the Year nominations. The criteria include community involvement, proactive stance, environmental stewardship, good business practices and integrity, and advocacy for agribusiness and the county.