Celebrating Green City Market's women farmers: Oriana Kruszewski

3/18/2021

Oriana Kruszewski, Green City Market’s beloved long-time grower specializing in Asian pears, never intended to be a farmer. Born in China and raised and educated in Hong Kong, Oriana’s Chinese roots have deeply influenced her work ethic and her tastebuds, even after immigrating to the United States 44 years ago.

After getting married, Oriana began to look for a hobby while she stayed home with her kids, and began gardening. In 1997 she bought 40 acres in Winslow, Illinois—“the lowest, coldest, worst place to have a farm,” she quipped, “But the price was right without a mortgage and no income!” And so the seed of Oriana’s Oriental Orchard was planted. 

She started planting onion, garlic, cucumber, tomato, Chinese vegetables and herbs, and eventually planted fruit trees all over her yard, though only the pear trees survived. As she planted more trees, Oriana began thinking back to her childhood and how much she had loved the sweetness and crunchiness of Asian pears. Asian pears were a delicacy and very expensive, “like avocado or lobster,” she explained, so her family would buy one or two to share in slices. Nobody grew Asian pears as far north as Illinois, and Oriana couldn’t find Asian pear trees anywhere.

A self-taught farmer, Oriana continued her education and learned to graft, a process combining the root and the scion (a detached living portion of a tree) of two different plants to continue growing as one, and made her own Asian pear tree.

Eventually this self-taught farmer was overflowing with Asian pears. A little over 15 years ago she began looking for the best market with access to the most people to sell to when she met Abby Mandel, founder of a new farmers market: Green City Market. Fortuitously, Oriana was carrying a bag of pears at the time and by the end of the summer she was stepping in at the market to supplement other vendors’ dwindling end-of-season product. 

Being an Asian-American woman in this field was, and continues to be, tough work. Not only does she mow her own orchard, plant and maintain all her own crops, pick all her own pears, wake up at 4:30am to get to market, but she has also overcome a lot of obstacles as an Asian woman farmer in the US.

Oriana had a hard time buying a house, and she was growing something completely different than other farmers around her, but because of her background she also knew more about these products than other people did. And these experiences made her stronger. “You have to keep kicking around to prove to someone else how strong you are,” she resolved. “A lot of small farmland is owned by women,” she explained, “and women are mentally tougher than men—detail-minded and can handle pressure from inside and outside the family.”

And being an Asian woman makes her even tougher, she posited. “Being an Asian daughter I helped with the family, being an Asian wife I was expected to take care of my husband, being an Asian mother I was supposed to take care of the kids, and when my parents got old, I took care of them,” she explained, “Never myself.” Now Oriana is over 70 and has finally been able to step out of a traditional caregiver role, but “I’m a little Asian woman, not even five feet,” she laughed, “I’m tired all the time.” 

This past year was especially challenging for Oriana. Covid-19 wiped out her business: she is a senior in the vulnerable population and runs a solo operation with no help. Her only sales are directly to GCM customers and she was not able to continue this work on her own during the pandemic. Moreover, the “polar vortex” of 2019 was especially damaging to her crop. The -50℉ temperatures killed 100 trees and, since pears take two years to grow, her orchard is now barely surviving. 

But Oriana knows hard work and knows her value. Her products are different from others and her orchard never was commercial. She is still growing and waiting for her pears to blossom to bring back to Green City Market this upcoming season, but in the meantime she has not sat still. She fermented her extra crop from past seasons and made Asian pear vinegar and sold to a winery and a distillery. She has also made Chinese herbal teas, kimchi, dried pears, and jams. Oriana has been invited to a local horticultural school to come look at trees and give grafting lessons, and has extended an open invitation while everything is shut down for people to come learn how to make new trees. The caregiver in her is ingrained.

Now the Asian pear tree Oriana started with is 43 years old. Every year she adds something new, now growing pawpaws and Chinese medicinal herbs as well, and her orchard is USDA Certified Organic. She has been a member of her local amateur fruit club (Midwest Fruit Explorer) for 30 years and has been the president for 15—“not because I’m smarter,” she clarified, “but because I’m willing to work.” Oriana has joined relevant clubs to continue teaching herself and others, picking up “what you can’t learn from books.” “I have proved to myself that I am good enough to step in.”

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