Courtesy of Oregon Aglink
The owner-operator of Salem’s E.Z. Orchards and the Oregon head of Northwest Farm Credit Services are the 2017 winners of awards from Oregon Aglink.
John Zielinski and Brent Fetsch will be honored Nov. 17 during the annual Denim & Diamonds dinner and auction in Portland.
Zielinski, of E.Z. Orchards, was chosen Agriculturist of the Year. He’s president of the Marion County Farm Bureau, serves on American Farm Bureau’s Labor Committee, serves on the Oregon Agritourism Partnership board and is a past president of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce and a past board member of Oregon Aglink.
Fetsch, of Northwest Farm Credit Services, will receive the Ag Connection Award. He’s been with the farm lending and crop insurance co-op for 30 years and served as senior vice president of operations and chief information officer at its Spokane headquarters before returning to his home state in January 2015 to become president of Oregon operations. Among other things, he once served as intern with the Oregon Agribusiness Council, predecessor to Oregon Aglink.
Northwest Farm Credit Services’ programs include one called Ag Vision, which provides low interest loans, often with reduced fees, for farmers 35 and under who have been farming less than 10 years and have less than $250,000 per year in gross sales. The idea is to help young farmers get established, because the average age of farmers is approaching 60 and many will retire or be ready to sell their land and equipment in the years to come.
Fetsch grew up in the Pendleton area and said the perspective gained while helping on his grandfather’s wheat farm still shapes his concern for the economic health of places outside Portland and the Willamette Valley’s Interstate 5 corridor.
“I find myself behaving as self-appointed advocate for rural Oregon and rural communities,” he said.
He urges urban residents to consider how things look like from the perspective of rural communities, including the “downstream effect” of regulations on rural producers.
“I make sure they understand Oregon ag and forest products are still substantially family-owned and -operated businesses,” he said. The co-op has 4,000 customers in Oregon and, while he hasn’t met them all, Fetsch said he can think of only two operations that aren’t family-owned.
Fetsch said he is humbled by the award and called it a tribute to all the people who have personally influenced his career and to the food and fiber industries he works with.
“There are so many people on whose shoulders I stand,” he said.
Zielinski could not be reached for a Capital Press interview. In a news release prepared by Oregon Aglink, Zielinski said he was “deeply honored” by the award.
“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,” he said.
The family business for the past 25 years has included E.Z. Orchards Farm Market in Salem. It primarily sells locally produced fruit and vegetables and also draws from the farm’s own orchards, which are managed by Zielinski’s brothers, Kevin and Mark.
The farm grows pears, apples and peaches. In season, the business operates a Harvest Festival that includes a corn maze, wagon rides, Halloween pumpkins and a petting zoo.
The farm also produces hard cider from its apples and is selling apples and juice to other cideries, some as far away as New York. The market’s donuts — flavored with cider, strawberries, raspberries, Marionberries and blueberries — are popular with shoppers.
While the activities and store offerings could be classified as “agritourism,” Zielinski believes they also help bridge the urban-rural divide.
The corn maze, for example, is cut in the shape of the state of Oregon, and trails through it represent familiar roads and highways. “Road signs” — about 75 of them — point to various towns and describe what is grown in regions of the state.
“We get a lot of urban folks out here to find a pumpkin and go on a hay ride,” Zielinski said in the Oregon Aglink news release. “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.”
Farmers make up only 1 percent of the population, he said, and the overwhelming percentage of voters and decision-makers have little connection to the land.
“If we don’t talk to our urban neighbors about why we perform and do certain tasks, they are not going to understand,” he said. “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.”
The annual Denim & Diamonds dinner and auction is on Friday, Nov. 17, at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Ticket and event information are available online: http://www.aglink.org/event/denim-diamonds/