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Father and son, Bill and Mark Zirkle of Zirkle Fruit Co., talk under a canopy of Golden Delicious apples in one of their older blocks in Selah, Washington. Bill says the trees are 60-some years old and are consistent producers, prop wood and all. Across the road from this block a new trellised block of Honeycrisp stands. <b> (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)</b>

Father and son, Bill and Mark Zirkle of Zirkle Fruit Co., talk under a canopy of Golden Delicious apples in one of their older blocks in Selah, Washington. Bill says the trees are 60-some years old and are consistent producers, prop wood and all. Across the road from this block a new trellised block of Honeycrisp stands.
(TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

When the leaders of Zirkle Fruit Co. want to share the story of the company’s history and vision, they take visitors up a dusty lane to a Yakima Valley hilltop.

On one side of the lane sits a trellised block of 6-year-old Honeycrisp trees. The high-density block, planted in 1-foot spacing, replaced a longtime orchard of Red Delicious trees that were an old strain and needed to be replaced.

On the other side: a traditional orchard of freestanding Golden Delicious trees.

Some 60 years old, with massive trunks each spaced 20 feet apart, the orchard produces only about two-thirds the crop of the Honeycrisp block.

Bill and Mark Zirkle, Zirkle Fruit

Bill and Mark Zirkle, the 2016 Growers of the Year
“It’s an exciting time to be in the fruit business. We’re trying to find as many niches as we can.” Mark Zirkle.

Yet the trees produce as good a Golden as any other tree, and no one at Zirkle can bear to tear them out just yet.

Together, the orchards represent Zirkle Fruit, past and future — the way things have always been and the way they need to be going forward. A respect for tradition, but a refusal to fear change.

Thanks in large part to those traits, Zirkle Fruit and its sales arm, Rainier Fruit Co., are among the world’s premier growers and packers. They also have earned Bill and Mark Zirkle recognition as the Good Fruit Growers of the Year for 2016.

Both men credit the company’s growth and success to the people who grow fruit or work for the company and buy its products.

“This is a huge effort for a lot of talented people,” Mark said. “Dad and I may strategize for the future, but it’s the team, it’s the people who run this place.”

Bill agreed. “It’s how you treat your customers, your employees, your coworkers, the neighbors, their families. It makes no difference. It seems like if you do the right thing, it all works out, and in our case, it did,” he said. “That’s why it’s been such a fun ride.”

A rich history

The Good Fruit Grower of the Year award is bestowed annually by Good Fruit Grower magazine to an innovating and inspiring grower or family in North America and is presented during the Washington State Tree Fruit Association Annual Meeting in December. The magazine’s advisory board makes the selection.

Often, those recognized are growers with long ties to the fruit industry, but to say farming is a Zirkle family tradition would be an understatement.

The family grew fruit for more than a century in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley until the Civil War effectively drove Perry Luther Zirkle, Bill’s great-grandfather, west to begin anew.

He settled in Washington’s Yakima Valley, where the family thrived for nearly four decades.

The Great Depression forced Bill’s grandfather to start over again, first working for other farmers, then buying a 60-acre apple block and growing from there.

Bill joined his father, Lester, at the company when he got out of college in 1964 and ran the company for two decades until Mark assumed control in 2003.

Bill recognized early on the benefits of youth. Aging happens slowly. Perhaps you aren’t quite as aggressive, or maybe you stick with older ideas because they’re comfortable to you, he said. Soon, things start to pass you by.

“You don’t lose it at 75. You lose it a lot earlier than that, and you better pass the torch. Sometimes that’s difficult for some folks to do,” he said. “I was blessed with Mark being here. He started in the orchard, ran packing lines, did it all, and it became an easy decision because you can pass it on with confidence that everything is going to be all right and even better.”

Third-generation grower Mark Tudor of Columbia Valley Fruit has watched what the Zirkle family has built over the years.

“Between the farming operation and the marketing operation, they’re one of the top and very impressive,” he said. “They are cutting-edge on most things.”

Succession planning is never easy, and representing both generations with the award is telling, Tudor said, when the statistics of farm succession are considered: Second-generation growers have about a 50 percent success rate, and those numbers fall further by the third generation.

Today, Zirkle Fruit is a major supplier of 16 of the 20 largest U.S. retailers. The company handles sales for six other shippers, and its own acreage has expanded to include some three-dozen sites in Central Washington and multiple crops: apples, cherries, pears, blueberries and wine grapes, as well as a custom-crushing facility that sells to some of the state’s biggest wineries.

Mark credits his dad for a fearlessness that moved the company forward all those years. “We’re not afraid to change things up in this company, whether it’s planting new varieties, getting new equipment or changing roles,” he said. “He built his career on trying to identify the trends in planting and taking advantage of those things.”

At the same time, a team with fresh perspectives will drive the company into the future. The management team now is largely youthful, mid- to late 40s. “That’s good,” Bill said. “That’s tempering youth and enthusiasm with some experience, and that’s the sweet spot.”

Mark’s best quality is that he’s reflective; he weighs alternatives and doesn’t make a knee-jerk decision, Bill said. When asked what qualities he inherited from his father, Mark is equally complimentary.

“The desire to do right to others, whether it’s consumers or your employees,” Mark said. “We might be demanding employers, but I think we’re pretty fair.”

A people place

Bill Zirkle at a Lady Alice apple block in Selah in late September.<b> (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)</b>

Bill Zirkle at a Lady Alice apple block in Selah in late September. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

It all started with a pop machine.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, when the employees needed money for something — a potluck, an employee lunch — Bill pitched in to help pay for it.

But the employees wanted to raise the money on their own, so Bill bought what they requested: a soda-pop machine. Proceeds go into a fund for employee needs that reaches far beyond lunches.

Over the years, thousands of dollars have been raised to help someone whose home burned down or fly an employee to Mexico for a family member’s funeral.

Later, the employees wanted to ensure every worker had access to a healthy, inexpensive lunch. Zirkle Fruit bought the machinery and the stoves and turned a room off one of the warehouses into a cafeteria. Lunches sell for between $2 and $3.

“Once that gets going and the right people are in place, it feeds on itself,” Bill said. “Mark and I don’t teach culture here. It’s taken off on its own, and that culture is reaped and expanded on by the employees themselves. It transcends into the workplace.”

zirklevolunteerIn addition to health insurance, retirement plans and Spanish- and English-language classes, Zirkle provides on-site medical clinics for employees and their families at its main warehouse in Selah, Washington, and about a half-dozen orchards across the state, including some places that are “pretty far flung, where people just don’t have access to health care,” Mark said.

Zirkle Fruit also created a scholarship at the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences to assist students who are committed to providing medical services in rural areas and funds college scholarships through the Washington Apple Education Foundation.

That culture, along with growing high-quality fruit, forms the basis for the company’s success, Mark said.

“It’s not the shiny new technology that anybody can buy, it’s not the high-tech orchards that, truthfully, any investment company could put in — and they are — it’s the people that run them. And that goes from the orchards to packing to administration to sales,” he said. “The success and growth of our company is tied to people. Even though some people don’t work here anymore or passed on, they are the legacy of the company.” •
– by Shannon Dininny, photos by TJ Mullinax