Feature Stories, Newspaper Writing

Okawville Farmer: A Mentor For the Poor, Hungry in Times of Need


Published October 2003 in The Messenger,
The Newspaper of the Belleville Catholic Diocese


Norbert Zinck has already begun to travel in later life as most retired folks do; but the 69-year-old Okawville farmer has yet to retire.

In between manning more than 300 acres on his family farm, Zinck, a member of St. Barbara’s in Okawville, travels near and far to give of himself.

As a volunteer for the United States Agency for Development, Zinck’s missions have led him to Mexico, Armenia, Macedonia, Azerbaijan and Rwanda to educate farmers in these underdeveloped countries.

He works in the fields, lives among the native people and works to provide better agricultural resources for those in need when he is called to do so. “It makes me feel guilty that we have so much in this country and other parts of the world have so little,” Zinck said.

He brings conveniences for the adults  — aspirin and first aid ointments, entertainment for the children — coloring books and candy, and his knowledge and experience for the farmers who welcome him into their home with open arms.

“The way I look at it is there is really no greater joy than helping people that are in need,” Zinck said.

A call for help is what led Zinck to get involved with the government’s agricultural agency. “I saw an ad on TV requesting help from people who had a background in agriculture and farming and I thought, ‘I could do that,’” Zinck said.

The government pays for his training, airfare and expenses but Zinck’s work is strictly volunteer. 

His first overseas mission was in 1999 with a month-long visit to Armenia. The next year he traveled to Azerbaijan on three different occasions to help with corn, wheat and potato production and returned in Dec. 2002 and Feb. 2003 to assist the underdeveloped country in acquiring a loan for machinery and farming equipment.

In Sept. 2002, Zinck helped the people of Rwanda, in the depth of starvation and sickness, with wheat production by converting a corn sheller into a wheat thrasher. “Their resources were so limited so we made do with what we had,” Zinck said.

His efforts had a lasting effect on the native people, who were previously unable to produce clean, pure flour by thrashing the wheat on dirt and cement. At Zinck’s suggestion, the U.S. government forwarded 50 more corn shellers to be converted as well.

“There were many times when I’ve been in a country and thought, ‘it is pretty rough going here,’” Zinck said. “But when you get on the plane and you’re coming back home, you know the trip was well worth it.”

His volunteer missions have continued in times of conflict and war but fear did not deter his efforts. “I always figured whatever God wants, that’s what will be,” Zinck said.

Zinck was guided by not only his faith, but the faith of his wife, Donna, and that of his four children and grandchildren; but he left each country with the prayers of those he touched along the way.

Smiling fondly, Zinck recalls many of his experiences with the people; a young girl in Azerbaijan, mesmerized by his family photos — her “American family”; her brother who was equally mesmerized by equipment and machinery belonging to his “American farmer,” and the adults who took pride in being his personal tour guide during his stay — at times more than six weeks.

“Everywhere I went, the people were so kind and generous — it’s been a wonderful experience.”

The experiences will continue to flourish as Zinck plans his next journey in a month or two, all while tending to the family farm.  “One of these days I’ll retire,” he said. “Just not today.”

– Shannon Philpott


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