The year was 1859. Oregon had just become the 33rd state in the Union, and pioneers continued to make the arduous journey across the Oregon Trail. Michael Henry Walker, with a covered wagon and all of his worldly possessions, departed Iowa and landed in the Willamette Valley. Since then, six generations of Walkers have farmed the area, mostly in Polk County.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the Walkers became part of the Willamette Valley hop boom around the town of Independence, which came to be known as the "hop capital of the world." When the hop boom ended, the family moved on to produce row crop vegetables and mint. Dean Walker started growing sweet cherries and hazelnuts as a sideline in the 1920’s. By 1958, Dean’s son Gordon discovered he had a passion for growing orchard crops. He began acquiring select cherry sites in the Eola Hills around Salem.
In 1963 Gordon Walker sold the family farms in the Independence area and moved to the pioneer community of Zena, in Polk County northwest of Salem. He formed Walkdale Farms as an orchard-centered operation growing cherries hazelnuts and prunes, with a focus on sweet cherries.
In recent decades, Phil Walker was the steward of the family farming legacy, along with his wife Becky. Phil grew up working in the orchards, first as a box boy in the hand harvest operations of the 1960’s. By the 1970’s Walkdale Farms was transitioning to mechanical harvest. This was no easy task. Mechanically harvesting the slopes of the Eola Hills creates multiple challenges. Key to the Walkdale operation is the development and maintenance of terraced rows that allow for mechanical access to the trees, but without harmful soil erosion.
The company continues to tend and plant sweet cherries on the same farms Gordon came to love decades ago. Walkdale Farms is one of the largest growers of sweet cherries in the Willamette Valley, and has been one of Gray & Company’s principal growers for more than four decades. Today, Phil & Becky’s sons, Marc, Will and JD, are continuing the family operation for future generations.