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A Treefruit Testament, A Q&A With Emily Zirkle, Business Development, Rainier Fruit Company

A Treefruit Testament, A Q&A With Emily Zirkle, Business Development, Rainier Fruit Company

The next generation of produce professionals will define and ignite who we are tomorrow as they lay the groundwork for their own personal and industry greatness today.

As much of the veteran agricultural workforce begins to retire in fresh produce, they are looking to those with a fire and a passion for people and food to carry the banner forward in a way that has rarely been done before.

This call to action is being answered by many, from legacy trailblazers to fresh faces in ag and everyone in between, including individuals like Emily Zirkle. As a member of Rainier Fruit Company's Business Development team, Emily supports the company's growth while working alongside the treefruit operator's best and brightest with a singular goal in mind: living, breathing, and doing business in a way that is wholesome to the core.

With her eye on the horizon and feet firmly planted in the orchards of Rainier, Emily opened up to me about her entry into the industry, the gravity that pulled her here, and what she sees as the staying power of fresh produce as a business and as her own road to passion and fulfillment.

 


Jordan Okumura: Emily, I get the strong sense that you had your sights set on fresh produce for a while, and I am sure having family in the industry also provided a potential guidepost. So, let's start at the beginning. How long have you been with Rainier, and what drew you to the company when you first began?

Emily Zirkle: I spent middle and high school summers working in different parts of the cherry and blueberry warehouse operations. Time in fresh produce is different from other industries and has just flown by. This May marks two years at Rainier Fruit Company.

In addition to learning the basics, working in production gave me a sense of ownership and deep pride in the business. Seeing and hearing how much people genuinely love working for Rainier really moved me and solidified my desire to get involved. These experiences influenced my journey, and I am so glad I followed my instincts.

 


JO: There cannot be enough said about being a part of an amazing work culture. I think about how much of our waking lives revolve around our hours at work, and any chance we have to create congruency between our personal and professional values is ideal. I see you have found a great balance. What keeps you at the company now that you have grown to be part of it?

EZ: Diving into the world of growing and selling fruit on a large scale is pretty intimidating, even as someone 'raised'; in the industry. Fortunately, I enjoy challenging myself and being part of a team that cares deeply about growing and shipping great fruit.

The cornerstone here at Rainier is to treat people right. This is the foundation on which my grandfather built the company we know today, and it is definitely my guiding principle as well. To me, if you aren't doing that, then what are you accomplishing?

Another mindset that feels right at home to me is the constant pursuit of improvement. In both the orchards and the warehouse, Rainier is always looking for ways to do things better. I think we're known for being perfectionists, but I believe caring a lot about what you do is key.

"The cornerstone here at Rainier is to treat people right. This is the foundation on which my grandfather built the company we know today...”

Emily Zirkle, Business Development, Rainier Fruit Company


JO: I love that Rainier is in a constant, if not relentless, pursuit of improvement. It is both inspiring and standard-setting. Rainier's fruit is truly a testament to that passion. So, what personally makes you passionate today about the industry we work in?

EZ: A LOT. I'm honored for the opportunity to continue a multigenerational tradition of providing accessible and nourishing sustenance. Call me a hippie, but food is a rare thing that unites us, after all.

I've thought a lot about our place in the world as food providers. Tastes and languages vary; food is one of the very few things that all people need. It's something we share with one another, and it is something we can put a lot of our love and connection into.

I'm pretty sentimental, as you can tell.

 


JO: I think that the sentiment you bring to your role is really beautiful, and what you bring of yourself will absolutely continue to impact your success. On the flip side of what you bring to this space, how has fresh produce changed, shaped, and influenced who you are personally and professionally?

EZ: Understanding the sheer amount of logistics and coordination it takes to bring a seemingly simple item such as an apple or pear to market definitely changes how one looks at the world in general. I've learned to appreciate the supply chain even more and be grateful for the opportunity to be involved.

The industry has also shown me how much the consumer needs to know about what we do, and I am happy to see that the consumer does crave to learn more. On the other side of that coin, though, as much as I personally wish more people would learn about how things like the supply chain work, I'm hesitant to say it would significantly impact consumer loyalty. I put myself in both industry and consumer shoes all the time.

While I think some people out there would sympathize with the challenges our industry faces, I'm not sure most would care, unfortunately. It's possible, especially with the increase in branding within produce, but I also think it goes against the positive feelings toward all things local, small, farm-to-table, etc. We should focus on the things we can control and the messages that promote produce in a positive light.

“Tastes and languages vary; food is one of the very few things that all people need. It’s something we share with one another..."


JO: That is really interesting and a great way to think about the situation. Does it keep you up at night? Or rather, what does keep you up at night?

EZ: Ha! I feel like any millennial or Gen Z-er would ask: What doesn't? In all seriousness, the treefruit industry has been anything but stable in its history, but many challenges and unknowns lie ahead. Consumer preferences are changing quickly, and the world is addressing our impact on the environment. I believe in our teams here at Rainier, who are no strangers to staying ahead of the curve.

What I prefer to concentrate on is what gets me up in the morning. As cliché as it is, my greatest motivator is our people. From the crews in the fields to packers in the warehouse and everyone in between, the people of Rainier are what set us apart. I am constantly humbled by the dedication and passion that each person puts into this operation. It's a pretty good reason to get out of bed every day!


I love how every conversation I have in this industry is another candle lit, which illuminates how powerful its people and its impact truly are. As Emily moves into her third year in the company, I am sure she will have even more wisdom to share and more insight to bestow. And, with a vision to live wholesome to the core, Emily and Rainier are sure to enlighten us all.