Western innovator: Prodigal son cultivates direct sales
Zielinski: 'I definitely like the challenge of retail and dealing with people'
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- As a child, John Zielinski sold peaches from a card table at the end of his grandparents' driveway, little knowing it was the beginning of a career in farm-direct sales.
Today Zielinski runs E.Z. Orchards Farm Market in Salem. The market sells fresh fruits and vegetables and locally grown processed foods six days a week from its northeast Salem location.
It may seem a natural progression to go from selling peaches in a driveway to managing a farm stand. But working the family farm stand wasn't always in Zielinski's plans.
At one point, Zielinski was convinced he wanted to be a filmmaker. After graduating from McNary High School in Salem in 1984, Zielinski left the family farm to study film at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.
"I made films in high school, and liked it," he said. "And I enjoyed studying film at Loyola Marymount."
But, he said, living in Los Angeles was less than ideal.
"Traffic was horrid," Zielinski said. "There was no place you could ever go and be alone. There was no peace and quiet.
"It was the old saying, 'You can take the boy off the farm, but you can't take the farm out of the boy.' Well, that was me," he said.
His film career was short-lived: After one year, Zielinski headed home.
Back at the family farm, Zielinski struggled to fit in. It was questionable, he said, whether the farm could accommodate Zielinski, his two brothers and their father, Stephen, who wasn't ready to retire at that time.
"We were tripping over each other," Zielinski said, "and that is not a good place to be, because it can cause friction."
In 1992, the family expanded its farm-direct operation and Zielinski took over the stand, leaving the farm work to his brothers, Mark and Kevin.
"I definitely like the challenge of retail and dealing with people," he said. "But there are days when it is a little crazy and I wish I was out in the field.
"Then again, there were many days when I was younger when I definitely wished I wasn't in the field," he said.
Zielinski had some retail experience in running the family's small-scale fruit stand prior to 1992, but it was a far cry from what he was about to experience.
"When we first opened here, there was a big learning curve to go from a small fruit stand that you staff with family to having a lot of paid employees," he said.
Today the store employs 12 to 15 full-time workers in the summer and five to six in the slower winter months, when drawing customers has proven difficult.
"We need to get people realizing that this Willamette Valley is bountiful almost year-round," he said.
Despite the low winter sales, E.Z. Orchards, like many farm stands, is benefiting from a buy-local movement that has spread in recent years, he said.
"What I hear from customers is they are glad to see us, because it is local," Zielinski said.
The store's biggest month is August when the farm's peaches are picked, Zielinski said, but October, when E.Z. Orchards holds its annual harvest festival, is the farm's busiest.
This month, thousands of customers will participate in weekend activities at the farm, and 6,000 to 7,000 schoolchildren will visit on weekdays for tours of the farm's pumpkin patch, petting zoo and corn maze.
Zielinski sees a double benefit in the tours. In addition to generating familiarity with the farm stand, the tours introduce agriculture to an urban audience.
"I think it is really important for people to get that connection back to the land, because most people are one to three generations out from the farm," he said.
"It always surprises me how many children have never been on a farm, never had a chance to pick anything or experience something growing," Zielinski said.
Zielinski's desire to show schoolchildren farm life is based in part, he said, on a civic responsibility that he picked up from his parents.
His mother, Eileen, was active in the Marion-Clackamas Chapter of Oregon Women for Agriculture and in the land-use planning the state developed in the early 1970s. His father was a regular participant on civic organization boards, he said.
Zielinski is continuing that tradition. In addition to opening the farm to children, he is serving as incoming president of the Marion County Farm Bureau. He also is past president of the Salem Chamber of Commerce and a chamber board member for 11 years.
Asked why he donates his time, he said: "I see it as trying to build a better community. And to be involved in some way or shape in your community is, I think, everybody's duty."
Zielinski also in recent years served on a task force that helped revamp state land-use laws that regulate farm-direct sales on farmland.
The task force helped shape what became Senate Bill 960. Among several stipulations, the bill caps sales of products not grown locally to no more than 25 percent of a farm stand's sales.
Jim Johnson, a land-use specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said Zielinski's work on the task force was instrumental in developing the law. He said Zielinski's approach to farm-direct marketing is exemplary.
"He recognizes the fine line between production agriculture and promoting agriculture," Johnson said. "The agritourism side is subordinate and related to his on-site agricultural production.
"And I think it is nice that he is not afraid of bringing the public onto his land and engaging with them," Johnson said.
Zielinski said he takes steps to avoid conflicts with neighbors, such as planting hedges to keep customers from trespassing on neighboring farms. And he regularly communicates with neighbors in advance of the annual harvest festival.
Reflecting back on his life, Zielinski said that as a child, he never envisioned he would be working full-time at a farm stand.
"I thought if I were to become a farmer, I would be doing what I saw my father do, which was being a grower," he said. "I didn't think I'd be doing what I'm doing."
Occupation: Manager of E.Z. Orchards Farm Market, Salem
Family: Wife, Jeanne; daughters, Claire, 15, Sofia, 11
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