Sometime in the early 1960s, a teenager attended a church retreat on the problem of hunger in Yakima, Washington, with his youth group. There he heard a missionary speak about working with children in India and the difficulties they faced. Suddenly, this kid had a dream. He wanted to start an orchard and he wanted to use his profits to help Indian children.
Today that teenager is the founder and owner, with his wife, of the largest employer in Walla Walla County, Washington (with nearly 3,000 employees at harvest time and more than 6,000 acres of apples and cherries), and the producer of 5 percent of all apples consumed in the United States. If you’re in a market and pick up one of the 17 varieties of apples, a pear or a bag of cherries with a “First Fruits” sticker on it, that comes from Broetje.
The company also produces many fruits that don’t grow on trees.
The story of Broetje Orchards, with more than $100 million in gross annual sales, is certainly not about overnight success. Ralph Broetje grew up on a chicken farm but didn’t know anything about growing fruit. He married Cheryl, the daughter of a dairy farmer, who also didn’t know anything about growing fruit. Neither had a college degree nor any business experience running an orchard. They went headfirst toward their goal anyway.
Gave everything, but it wasn’t enough
In 1968, the Broetjes bought a cherry orchard in southern Washington, where the dry summers and cold winters east of the Cascade Mountains favor farming and fruit production. Well, mostly favor. The first year, the Broetje’s cherry crop froze; the second year, rain ruined it; and the third year, fruit flies destroyed everything. Despite this horrific start and massive amounts of debt, Ralph and Cheryl had no intention of giving up. Neither did the people around them. The bank extended more credit, and a “dream team,” as Cheryl calls them, of local residents came together to help monetarily and spiritually. A Sunday school teacher who remembered that ambitious kid and his dream reminded the now unsuccessful orchard owner that this wasn’t just about him, but the people he was called to serve.
By the 1970s, the Broetjes had found success. They were able to produce cherries, pay off debts, expand and hire. During this time they expanded into apples. However, like many agricultural operations, they faced plenty of setbacks as well as successes.
One of the most significant struggles came about in the mid- 1980s. Local residents who worked in the Broetje orchards in the summer were less and less interested in the picking, hauling and other heavy labor that had to be done. At the same time, newly immigrated Mexicans and other immigrants were more than happy to take the work. That’s also exactly when culture shock set in. There was a huge cultural and language divide between the Broetjes and their workforce.
Peace and refuge
The new workers faced a plethora of struggles and tribulations in rural Washington. There was an alienation from their new American Northwest culture; many employers saw their new workers from Mexico not as individuals with a variety of gifts and talents but simply as units of labor. Some orchard owners viewed the immigrants as necessary for the specific manual agricultural labor that needed to get done – and that’s about all. Ralph and Cheryl remembered how their “dream team” came in to help them out when they had their early struggles with their orchard. Maybe now, as the Broetjes began to grasp some of the challenges their immigrant workers faced, they could help them. Cheryl describes the relationship as a kind of family. “We’re all just tending a big garden together.”
“Safety” was an issue that Cheryl and Ralph had never really had to think about but was a huge issue for their migrant workers. These hardworking men and women just wanted peace and refuge. Women had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their kids in their home and go to work in the orchards for the day. After one incident in which a fire broke out near a house while children were inside as their mother worked, the Broetjes realized they needed to create a safe environment for the workers’ children, so they built a daycare.
Out of this realization sprang several nonprofit organizations funded by Broetje Orchards to address the needs of the orchard’s workers and other marginalized groups. Today there are several neighborhoods built by Broetje-affiliated organizations, with schools, community centers, affordable houses to purchase and apartments for rent. Workers can earn a living in the orchards while their children are safely cared for in schools or childcare facilities.
Children are what Cheryl calls “the door into the family.” Learning about the children’s needs made the rest of the families’ needs more apparent. The Broetjes, lifelong farmers, had to learn how to think like social workers. It began with schooling and caring for the children of workers but turned into stable communities where peace and refuge could be found.
Cheryl Broetje had already founded the Center for Sharing three decades earlier to offer relief and support for families living in Mexico. But what about her own backyard? It didn’t take long for Cheryl to realize that many in her Washington state community had similar needs. Locals began pointing out that others could use the Center for Sharing’s support: single moms, at-risk youth and anyone else who is or feels unable to achieve their goals and dreams. The center’s work shifted and evolved. Today the center focuses on Robert Greenleaf’s manifesto of servant leadership and fosters intentional community living. Neighborhoods supported by the center focus on three important facets: “The welcoming of strangers and practice of radical hospitality,” “the discovery of each one’s gifts” and “the practical employment of those gifts through associations created to serve the common good.”
There are eight communities of practice started by the Broetje-affiliated Vista Hermosa Foundation and the Center for Sharing that ascribe to three mantras: servant-led, trauma-informed and committed to mutual empowerment. They’re not low-cost housing for the poor; they’re actual communities that fight alienation and lead to greater flourishing.
One neighborhood is Terra Vida (“Land and life”). In this intentional community, residents can live out principles of servant leadership. The neighborhood is in East Pasco, a city suffering from poverty, gang-related violence and drugs. I spoke with a Terra Vida resident who was able to find safety and comfort there. After coming out of a bad domestic situation, she was able to figure out her goals and gifts and start thriving in Terra Vida. She now works at the Center for Sharing, and beyond helping herself, she can now do much for her new neighbors and friends. She jokes that people shudder when she tells them she’s living in East Pasco. Many think of this area as a dangerous place, but her community has a real sense of safety and belonging.
Many in Terra Vida are mentally ill. Society struggles to know how to serve these men and women, but not so in Terra Vida. A young man named Miles had been unable to find a job or provide for himself for years, but after finding his way to this community, he was hired as a dishwasher. He takes pride in that role and is offering a real service to his neighbors. Before he faced alienation and now he has a home, a job and a sense of belonging.
The gift of tacos
Much of the work at Broetje Orchards involves exhausting manual labor. Not that there aren’t skills and know-how involved, but many of the jobs can leave a worker sapped at the end of a workday. Like many in other industries, farmers rely on this labor. The Broetjes, however, realize that while their workers bring great value as apple pickers or sorters on the line, they have much, much more to offer. While touring their facility, I got to see this firsthand. After watching apples travel through a landscape of conveyer belts, sorters, infrared readers and more, we took a break for lunch.
We arrived at a small building used for company retreats and private meetings. A man and a young woman served up pork and beef tacos with incredible flavor and plenty of options for salsa. The meal was a true labor of love. After eating as many tacos as was socially acceptable, I leaned back and made small talk with some of the Broetje employees and family members who had eaten lunch with us. I assumed the food had come from a local caterer, but someone mentioned that it had been prepared by a Broetje Orchard employee. Whether through sharing his passion for cooking or someone stumbling upon these delicious tacos, someone at Broetje realized that this employee had so much more to offer than just his physical labor in the orchards or on the processing line.
This is a perfect example of how Broetje operates. They value their workers as humans created in the image of God. They’re not simply “units of work”; they’re men and women with talents and skills who each have their own unique life stories. Today many Broetje employees are people who have immigrated to America looking for work. Many had skilled jobs in their home countries but came to the United States for new opportunities. They still bring these skills and passions with them. The cook is one example of this.
Roger Bairstow, director of HR and corporate responsibility, sheds some light on the labor situation at Broetje and the agricultural industry in the United States. Everyone I spoke to at Broetje Orchards acknowledged that some workers are undocumented. Bairstow refers to a recent study by the USDA stating that an estimated 60–70 percent of the nation’s agricultural workforce is undocumented. “We’d be foolish to assume we’re not part of this statistic,” Bairstow says. In fact, in 2015 the Wall Street Journal reported that Broetje Orchards agreed, without admitting wrongdoing, to pay a $2.25 million fine for hiring undocumented workers. When Broetje Orchards hires a new employee, it receives all necessary paperwork and doesn’t make any kind of arrangements to pay anyone under the table. Employers can’t look at a person and figure out whether that person is documented, so if they receive paperwork, they have to assume it’s legitimate.
The Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration is particularly difficult and confusing for Broetje’s immigrant employees. Bairstow describes the political climate figuratively as if it were a warning on the U.S. border: “There’s a ‘no trespassing’ sign right next to the sign that says ‘help wanted.’” He points out that the U.S. economy is growing faster than the native population can produce workers. But there’s more involved than labor economics. Bairstow sees this conflict of needing workers and some people wanting to shut down borders as revolving around a single question: “How do we show love to our neighbors?”
Another challenge is water and agricultural regulation. Getting enough water for farms is a huge problem throughout the semi-arid growing regions in much of eastern Washington. To expand production and produce more crops, Broetje Orchards needs more water, but the company has not received permission to drill another well. Bairstow laments that future farmers and entrepreneurs are not encouraged to create new businesses. Government regulations like that “don’t serve the people well,” he points out. The State of Washington Department of Ecology decided that at one point too many water rights were allowed and that to protect wildlife, salmon in particular, it would not allow any more water usage. This “use it or lose it” regulation reduces the total amount of water a farm is allotted if they don’t use it all. While the intent is good, it encourages farmers to be wasteful if they require a smaller amount than they’re allowed. Rather than conserving, many will use their allotted amount and dump any excess.
Another odd problem that the Broetjes face comes from, yet again, good intentions. Many churches and social groups see the immigrant Hispanic communities of orchard workers as a mission field. These churches are convinced that these hardworking, capable men and women are in desperate need of help. Cheryl recalls groups showing up to give away goods that no one needed or to paint houses, despite most of the homes being new and in excellent condition. This approach is more than a little insulting. Relationships aren’t formed and lasting communication isn’t created. Missionary paternalism benefits absolutely no one and wastes valuable resources. “Meaningful change,” Cheryl explains, “happens in small places with one person at a time.”
The original dream
Cheryl and Ralph Broetje have been committed to helping others from the beginning. They saw the alienation their new migrant workers faced and took concrete action to address the problem. But many other groups are suffering too.
More than 20 years ago, Ralph and Cheryl realized there were no good local schools in their region that could take in troubled teenagers and help them not only receive an education but also care for their spiritual needs. So they helped found Jubilee Leadership Academy, located adjacent to the orchards. I spoke to Rick Griffin, executive director and another founding member of Jubilee. This school, which has low admission costs, takes in boys aged 13 to 18 from all over America and gives them a place to live, an education and life skills.