By Rachel LaFranchi — The Walker family has been farming in Graton for over 100 years and this year they are being honored as Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year.
Lee Walker, 86, is a sixth generation apple farmer in Graton whose 50 acre apple farm epitomizes the term family business. Walker manages the farm alongside his son Lee Walker III, but around the property you will always find a handful of family members putting in their best effort on top of their day jobs to help the family business succeed.
Caption: From left to right: Henry Gowan and Sue Walker; John and Cindy Walker; Lee Walker (center); Michelle, TJ, Blaine and Austin Beckman; Goldie Hilkey; Kyler Walker and Shannon O’Leary; Barbara and Lee Walker III (not pictured Clay Walker and Jordan Gregonis). Photo by Rachel LaFranchi.
The family’s history and passion for Sonoma County agriculture has led them to be named as Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year. The family will be honored July 13th at Love of the Land alongside Farm Bureau’s two other award recipients. Jackson Family Wines will be receiving the Luther Burbank Conservation Award for their sustainability efforts in Sonoma County and beyond while Earl and Dot Holtz will be inducted into the Farm Bureau Hall of Fame for their commitment to the local dairy industry. Walker’s family originally settled in Sonoma County in 1856, and Walker said the family owned land from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa which they paid 50 cents an acre for.
Arthur Upp purchased the family’s 30 acres on Upp Road in Graton in 1910. This orchard has been passed down through generations and the house that Upp built is still where Walker lives, often coming to life with family events.
Walker was raised in the Vine Hill area of Sebastopol, but spent most of his time on the family’s apple farm. “I always loved this place,” Walker said. He remembers Upp farming the land with horses until he bought the family’s first tractor in 1935. Walker married Shirley in 1952. They moved to the ranch that year living there with their three children until Shirley passed away. Walker recalls only three years since 1952 that he didn’t live on the ranch – two years where he served in the Army after he was drafted and one year playing professional baseball.
In 1960, Walker and his family changed the way they sold apples. Instead of selling to processors, they started selling directly from their farm. Walker remembers their business starting in the shade of a large tree and the family wiping down apples with towels.
Two years later, Walker bought machinery to polish the apples. This was followed by building a packing house and Walker says the business just progressed from there. In 1968, they started selling directly to local stores. Walker said as his three children (John, Sue and Lee III) grew up they became more active in the operation.
“We came to the point where we were a grower and shipper of apples – particularly Gravensteins,” said Walker. “At the time there were 34 other packers in the area, now there’s only a couple.”
The family’s apple business is located on their 30 acre Upp Road property, and they lease an additional 20 acres of orchards in Sebastopol. Walker watched as the land around his farm was planted with grapes and most of his neighbors started to make more money than he was, but Walker said he was raised growing apples and didn’t know anything else.
“It’s been a real challenge,” said Walker, “a tremendous challenge over the years. For a while we didn’t get much money, and that’s when all the apples were converted to grapes.” Walker said the family’s biggest hurdle was eight years ago after they’d been losing money for many years. The family decided to give it one more chance, giving their all to sell their apples to local stores and markets.
Walker described the family as being heavily involved in the business even though the rest of the family has their own jobs during the day. He said that although he and his son both work full time on the farm, they couldn’t do it without additional help. His son John recently weed-eated the orchards, his daughter Sue takes care of the shipping and Lee III’s wife Barbara does the bookkeeping. The grandkids, great-grand kids and other family members can be found helping in the packing shed during harvest, and it’s all hands on deck for the annual Gravenstein Apple Fair weekend.
Although the family is often working long hours and two jobs, their passion for what they do is evident.
“If I even breathe the word sell, I’ll have a revolt,” Walker said.
He describes the ranch as “truly a family operation” and believes that the business means more because the whole family is involved.
Walker said Shirley was a main cog in the family business and kept it together before she passed away six years ago. He credits much of their success over the years to her. Walker has a photo album his wife made with polaroid photos of their customers she took over more than 20 years. Some of the customers have been visiting the orchard for upwards of 35 years.
“You’d be surprised by how many people come out here and say, ‘This is a for real apple farm!’ But that’s our main draw. We’re very proud of our product – it’s very good, very fresh. We talk about the apples to customers, some of them are the third generation to visit the farm.”
Today, the family grows nearly 600 tons of apples a year, all of which are dry farmed. They cultivate more than 25 varieties of apples, although nearly half are Gravensteins. In addition to selling apples directly to customers on their Upp Road farm, apples can be found locally at Andy’s Produce, G&G Supermarket, Imwalle Gardens or the Santa Rosa Farmers’ Market.
For Walker, the future of the business doesn’t seem bright, and it’s not because of the product.
“It’s really sad,” said Walker, “we have the product and it’s in high demand. Farming is fun, but it has been taken away from the small farmer. I may be wrong though, maybe the small farmer can survive, but you have to be really small where you have an outside job and farm on the weekend.” Walker cites labor and regulations as the two largest obstacles in the way of small farmers. Labor is hard to find and there’s not enough people to help the family pick apples during harvest. In fact, this year, the family didn’t even finish pruning.
Walker feels regulations are particularly burdensome to the small farmer who doesn’t have the resources to comply with regulations. Walker cites having to develop heat safety plans as an example of regulations that don’t make sense for smaller farmers. He said while they’re okay when they stand alone, it’s hard to devote resources to developing plans for a minimal work force. He said in the 70 years he’s been farming without them, everyone has been happy and has never had problems ending his comments by saying today is just a different world. Walker said the family is very enthusiastic about what they do and they intend to keep farming as long as they can keep the business afloat. He said being honored as the Farm Family of the Year was very nice, and it is especially important to him that the entire family was being recognized.
“We like apples,” said Walker. “I don’t want to leave. We’ve made a lot of friends in the industry through the years, and that sort of thing is hard to walk away from. We still don’t do as well as the grape people, but we do this because we love it.”
Walker Apples is located at 10955 Upp Rd, Graton, CA 95444 and open seven days a week from August through December.
Credit: Sonoma County Farm Bureau.