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Keepers of a Washington Legacy

Keepers of a Washington Legacy

Ours is a culture in perpetual motion.

If you are on time, you’re late. If you aren’t ahead, you’re behind. Even as I write, economic and environmental pressures are working to push our industry into a new chapter of merging and consolidation, making every year a milestone. Constant change in the name of what is new has formed a trench between the current and the long-established. Gazing across the gorge with nostalgia for days many of us are only connected to through story and cinema, there is a new level of awe for what has stood the test of time.

The Zirkle family is one of the few with a sturdy bridge still weaving its way across this space between now and then, with Rainier Fruit Company standing independently five-plus generations strong, 100 percent family-owned and operated.

The significance of such a long-term stake—how it impacts the entire operation and, ultimately, the final product—was something I was eager to discuss with Mark Zirkle, Chief Executive Officer and keeper of a Washington legacy.


Melissa De Leon Chavez: Amid a crowded space in our industry, Rainier has a unique approach to execution and change. Can you elaborate on that for me, Mark?

Mark Zirkle, Chief Executive Officer, Rainier Fruit Company: Execution: To us, that is simply doing the job right. No excuses. If you can’t execute, you have failed your customer. If you do this often enough, you lose the trust and foundation of the relationship, endangering the business. We constantly strive to improve our performance through consistent innovation and investments throughout the company, which, in the long term, improves our profitability and ensures our growth for the good of our growers, employees, and their families.


MDC: With trust being such a valuable commodity, both for the buy-side and consumers, I assume having such a strong and deeply rooted foundation helps! How does the circle of establishing and maintaining trust work for the Rainier team?

MZ: Because the company has its three tenets of growing, packing, and marketing, we have a deep understanding of the balance between the farmer and the customer or consumer. Rainier takes a long-term view of customers and strives to partner with the market leaders. When the company delivers consistent quality, pricing, and volume to its customers year after year, a trust develops which, in turn, means repeat business. A strictly grower perspective may not subscribe to this holistic, long-term approach. But over the years, Rainier has benefited from some amazing relationships based on trust.

MDC: Rainier is now in its fifth generation with roots dating back to the 1800s; what does it mean to uphold a legacy while keeping in front of rejuvenation and innovation?

MZ: What I feel about legacy is that you should take the best of what the previous generation represented. For our company, that is the culture of growing the best fruit while treating our employees and the land in such a way that both relationships are long-lasting, sustainable, and something to be proud of. My forefathers would not be happy seeing the company clinging to old, inefficient, and unprofitable planting and packing operations. Demand, technology, and resources are in constant change, so we don’t get caught up in preserving legacy plantings or systems; thoughtful innovation is key to survival.

MDC: I remember a Rainier quote about being “a family of families” regarding the company’s focus on circular repercussions of care and service for both people and the land. Can you tell me a bit about that cycle and what it means to be a family of families?

MZ: Family is a very important component of our culture. That is not only in regard to the obvious legacy of the Zirkle family but the generational aspect of our shipper members, who can count themselves four to six generations strong of complete ownership and management for their enterprises as well. Our family of families also represents our employees, of which a large number have decided to make their careers at the company. Many who started right after school are now enjoying watching their children and relations work at our big family of families.

I could spin yarns over pages about Rainier’s numerous acts in sustainability and regeneration; how an experienced and long-term foundation has cultivated expansive and deep roots; the circular and cohesive decision-making; and the support, trust, and value of the people. In each is a story itself, which holds a stone in that bridge spanning the distance from Mark’s ancestors to his children and the company that represents them all. As Mark pointed out, the structure does not depend on one end to uphold the other. It leans on the value each piece brings to the integrity of the whole.

With change as our only true constant, I offer the assurance of that archway. If only time will tell of success, it is already singing the praises of Rainier Fruit Company.