By Mitch Lies
(also read Paying It Forward about Ag Connection winner, Brent Fetsch)
John Zielinski, owner/operator of one of Oregon’s most successful farm markets and a prodigious volunteer, is Oregon Aglink’s Agriculturist of the Year. It is an honor he is not taking lightly.
“I am deeply honored,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d done that much to deserve such an award, and I really appreciate that other people think that maybe I did.”
One look at his resume, and it is easy to see why many believe Zielinski is deserving of the award.
Zielinski is president of the Marion County Farm Bureau and serves on the Labor Committee of the American Farm Bureau. He serves on the board of the Oregon Agritourism Partnership, is a past president of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, and a past board member of Oregon Aglink.
Asked why he donates so much of his time, he said: “I think it is important to give back.”
Then there is the influence of his mother, Eileen Zielinski, 84.
“When I was young, my mother was very involved with Oregon Women for Agriculture,” he said. “She also served on the State Board of Agriculture, and she is still serving, and has been for about 20 years, on the Marion-Polk Food Share Board. I guess that kind of rubbed off on me.”
Then there are the issues that crop up that draw people into organizations. “I got involved with Farm Bureau because Marion County was proposing that the fresh cider that we sell was a value-added product, rather than a farm product,” he said. “Because we sell a lot of cider, it would have thrown our proportions out of whack to be considered a farm stand in an EFU (exclusive farm use) zone.
“So I worked with the Farm Bureau and we were able to get that changed in the administrative rules, and I liked what was going on at Farm Bureau and stayed involved,” he said.
His Chamber of Commerce experience started similarly. “When we first opened the market, I got involved with them because I thought it might help business to get my face out there and let people know that we were open,” he said. “Then I served on their ag committee, then became chair of the ag committee. Then they asked me to become a board member for Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, and I served 11 years on the board, eventually becoming president.”
During the time Zielinski was becoming a presence in the local Chamber of Commerce, his store, E.Z. Orchards Farm Market in Salem, was becoming a mainstay for mid-Willamette Valley shoppers looking for fresh produce and specialty packaged goods.
Asked what it takes to get on his shelves, Zielinski said: “I emphasize local first. Then, on the packaged foods, what I am looking for is it has to be a good quality product and it needs to have eye appeal. People buy with their eyes first. You can have the most wonderfully tasting product in the world, but if has got an ugly label and isn’t packaged well, it is not going to sell well.
“For fresh, whenever it is possible, I will carry local,” he said. “If local is unavailable, then I can source it out of a produce warehouse in Portland that delivers six days a week. That is where I get things like the bananas, papayas and mangoes.”
Zielinski added that much of what he sells during the summer originates in fields not far from the store. “One advantage to having lived in this area my whole life, having a family name that goes back four generations in this area and knowing the community, is I have good connections.”
The market also draws extensively from its own orchards, which are co-managed by John’s brothers, Kevin and Mark, who also serves as the farm’s chief financial officer.
“We’ve expanded the orchard considerably over the years and tried to diversify in as many ways as we could,” Zielinski said. “We have always been orchardists, but there has been a shift over the last 20 years from being predominately apple growers, and having pears and peaches also, to now we are predominately pear growers, and we grow enough apples and peaches for the farm market.”
The farm also in recent years has been producing hard cider from its apples and is selling apples and juice to other cideries, some as far away as New York, an operation that Kevin runs.
Then there are the market’s famous donuts, the idea for which originated in a tour of New England states that John took 20 years ago through an organization of farm-direct marketers.
“Apple cider donuts were very popular back there, so I came back and found a used donut machine and started making cider donuts,” he said. “Now we’re going year round, not just when there is cider. We eventually figured out that we could make strawberry, raspberry, marionberry and blueberry donuts. And in October, we do pumpkin donuts, in addition to the apple cider donuts.
“Now we have two donut machines, and they are both bigger and faster than the first one I had bought,” he said.
E.Z. Orchards Farm Market is celebrating 25 years in business this year, with the actual anniversary falling on Oct. 12, which coincidentally is Zielinski’s father’s, Stephen’s, birthday.
That the market opened on Oct. 12 is fitting for another reason, as well. Each October, E.Z. Orchards hosts its Harvest Festival, annually drawing thousands of customers to participate in agritourism activities while selecting their Halloween pumpkins. Among activities in which customers partake are a corn maze, wagon rides and a petting zoo. The farm offers pony rides on weekends. There are pedal tractors to ride, lots of hot apple cider, other food and beverages and live music on weekends.
While the festival is a good revenue source each year, Zielinski sees more to it than just economic return.
“I figure that it is an opportunity for us to reach out to the public and share information about farming and educate and narrow that rural-urban divide,” Zielinski said.
“We get a lot of urban folks out here to find a pumpkin and go on a hay ride,” he said. “Is a hay ride something people do on a farm all the time? No. But it does get people out to the farm, and, of the school children who visit us every year, there are a lot of them who have never seen where food comes from before. So we take them to the apple orchard. We explain what happens in each of the four seasons with apples, and then they get to pick an apple and they get to go out and pick a pumpkin.
“And they go through the corn maze, which we made educational,” he said. “It is in the shape of the state of Oregon, and the trails through the corn maze are the roads and highways of Oregon. And we have about 75 signs out there. There is a sign for Salem. There is a sign for Portland, for Baker City and Prairie City and John Day and Ontario and Fossil and other towns across the state. And it is not just a sign saying here this is, but here is the population, the elevation, what they grow here.
“Just because of the different issues that face ag in the mid-valley, if we don’t continue to try and bridge that rural/urban gap, it is going to be more difficult for the business of agriculture,” he said. “If we don’t talk to our urban neighbors about why we perform and do certain tasks, they are not going to understand. One percent of the population or less are farmers, so that means there are a lot of other folks with the power to vote and influence the decision makers who have little to no connection to the land. So if we aren’t educating them as to why we are doing things, it won’t be good for us in the long run.”
Spoken like a true Oregon Aglink Agriculturist of the Year.