One golden opportunity often leads to another.
When Lexi Crawford enrolled at Oregon State University in the mid-2000’s, she wasn’t expecting to make connections that would lead her to Klamath Falls and eventually a seat — and as the first woman — on the Oregon Potato Commission.
In a whirlwind of serendipity, the native of Albany, Ore., met her future business partner Weston Walker the first day of college, after which he introduced her to her husband, Bart Crawford.
When the couple married and returned to the Klamath Basin, where Bart grew up, she started working in the office at Gold Dust & Walker Farms in Merrill.
“I think it was fate,” Crawford said.
Now she’s worked her way up from office manager to junior partner of the company and manages many of the company’s accounts along with Weston Walker. Gold Dust sells potatoes to In-n-Out, Hormel Foods, Frito-Lay, and Pik Nik Foods. The company, which incorporates brothers John Walker and Bill Walker’s operations, exports to Calbee in Japan, as well as companies in the Philippines and South Korea.
“We grew so fast,” Crawford said, noting potato loads more than doubled to the burger chain alone in the last four years.
Adapting to change
Growth meant she and the company have needed to continually adapt to the changes of a fast-paced potato industry, something she brings to the statewide commission. She is one of three representatives from the Klamath Basin on the commission, including Lon Baley for Malin, and Dan Chin for Klamath Falls.
Chin, past chairman of the commission and in his 20th non-consecutive year on the commission, expressed excitement about having Crawford on board.
“It’s good to get some different perspective on everything, whether it be marketing or legislative stuff or whatever we’re working on,” Chin said.
Crawford is excited to serve on the commission, but wasn’t expecting the role, either. A decade of working in the potato industry and a Master’s degree in business administration has more than prepared her.
The commission, in its 70th year, is heavily involved in potato research, education, trade and promoting related issues in the Oregon Legislature.
“She’s young and has got good ideas,” Chin added. “She’s working with a company that’s progressive and is exporting a lot of potatoes … they’re looking for new markets all the time.”
Crawford’s at-large position was previously held by Nels Iverson of the Willamette Valley. But without interest from the Willamette Valley, it was opened to applicants from throughout the state of Oregon.
Able to draw on her Willamette Valley roots, and with a decade of experience in potatoes, Crawford has filled the at-large position and said she’s been committed to catching up to speed on the transition from the private to public sector.
“Our biggest goal is investing in potato research,” Crawford said of the commission. “We spend the majority of our assessment money on that.
“I love having the opportunity to travel and do things to help our industry advance,” she added.
And travel she has since assuming the board role in fall 2017.
In May 2018, she represented the Oregon Potato Commission in Shanghai, where she spoke at a trade show. While in Asia, she also visited the company’s export customer in Japan, where she met with the first female plant manager at the company’s Hiroshima plant.
The commission also sent her to speak to the West Coast Longshoremen in San Francisco, where she said relationships between Gold Dust & Walker Farms and the union were boosted and concepts floated for the possibility of an inland port in Millersburg, Ore., near Albany. Such a port could allow easier transport for potatoes for the Klamath Basin company as all exports are shipped out of the Tacoma/Seattle area.
Sending them south through California would be too much of a financial burden with potatoes being such a hefty crop.
Whatever needs doing, Crawford’s motto is: “Make it happen.”
That’s Crawford’s modus operandi, and it fits well with Gold Dust & Walker Farms, too.
“Jump in wherever I’m needed and figure it out,” she said. “That’s a big part of the philosophy here. We’ve had to figure out almost everything to run this business.”
Bill Walker manages the company’s account with Frito-Lay. Weston Walker, also a partner in the company, and Crawford work together to manage all other accounts.
“Potatoes are definitely our main focused crop and water is key — they need lots of it,” Crawford said. “Over the last few years, our company strategy has been to acquire land with really good water rights. So in case of a crisis, we could move our potato acres to those properties and never falter on a contract. That’s our main goal. One of the things Weston and I always say is, ‘We never want to over-promise and under deliver.’ ”
The business is also set up in a way that hopefully shields operations from the effects that drought can bring.
“... we would be able to make it happen if we did have a catastrophe like 2001,” Crawford said.
Despite this, the business remains very involved in water efforts. Bill Walker is a board member of the Klamath Drainage District and Tricia Hill is a member of the Klamath Water Users Association board of directors, which represents the interests of more than one dozen irrigation districts in the Klamath Basin.
“We have a strong presence to stay plugged in and helping drive things forward,” Crawford said.
Crawford prides her care for customers, but emphasizes the company has proven itself with its quality, service, and follow-through. In the last four years, she’s seen potato loads double just with the burger chain.
“That’s all about finding what the customer needs and finding solutions,” she said. “That’s something that Weston and I focus on every day.”
Crawford said she’s felt an ownership while at Gold Dust & Walker Farms, which only grew as she stepped into her role as junior partner.
“When I was given the opportunity to become a partner, my outlook changed considerably and I felt myself taking an even stronger position on ownership,” Crawford added. “I saw it reaching into other departments and looking into things for improvement.”
Along with her role at Gold Dust, Crawford also juggles family life as a mother of two children, ages 6 and 9, and she and Bart have made their home in the Merrill area.
When asked what she would say to other women in business looking to excel, she advised them not to be afraid and not to underestimate one’s own abilities.
One of her biggest points of pride is having her daughter tell the entire elementary school what she wants to be when she’s older — a potato saleswoman for Gold Dust & Walker Farms.
“Oh my gosh, I screamed,” Crawford said, with a laugh.
“I’m like, ‘Yes!’”
“She always wants to go with me, no matter where I’m going,” Crawford said.