When Ralph Broetje was 15, he had what he calls a "wild vision." He saw himself someday owning a large orchard and using the proceeds to help kids in India.
That vision came true. Ralph owns an orchard, 4,000 acres of mostly apples in southeastern Washington. And the orchard has helped children in India—and many others as well.
Ralph and his wife Cheryl are owners of one of the largest privately owned apple orchards in the world. Its value has been assessed at roughly $40 million. Almost 700 employees work year-round on the farm—the number nearly doubles during harvest season. Workers in the Broetje warehouse pack an average of 18,000 boxes of apples every day.
What’s unusual about this place, though, is not the size. It’s the way people are treated. Clearly the most precious commodity around here isn’t apples—it’s human beings. It’s a business, and obviously a very successful one, but this company provides for its workers not only daycare, as do many businesses, but opportunities for everything from housing to counseling services to education, from pre-school to college (see "Bearing Fruit," below). In many ways, the Broetje operation looks more like a social service agency—or a church—than an agricultural enterprise.
Irrigation from the Snake River has revitalized this region, located a few miles upstream from its merger with the Columbia River. Where the water doesn’t reach, desolate expanses of sand and sagebrush mock Washington’s motto as the "Evergreen State." Thanks to now-controversial dams, this is one of the most productive dryland agricultural areas in the world. Irrigation has brought forth verdant fields of wheat and barley, canola and mustard, dry peas and lentils, alfalfa and other small grains. Boise-Cascade grows acres of fast-growing trees to feed its paper factory in nearby Wallula.
Approaching the Broetje Orchards on Fishhook Park Road, just off Highway 124, visitors are greeted first by a semi-circle of adobe houses surrounding a gym and a mission-style church that would look more at home in Mexico or the American Southwest. That’s intentional—much of what happens here seems to be about making people feel at home, and most of the workers come from points south.
Ralph Broetje (pronounced "Bro-chee"), a slender man of medium height and silver hair, walks out of his office in the warehouse. Wearing blue jeans, boots, and a polo shirt, he easily could be mistaken for one of the Class of ’65 alumni gathered at the local high school reunion a few miles away. "Unassuming" or "soft-spoken" are the labels usually applied to Ralph. You’d have to add "humble" as well; any talk about his success or business acumen is met with disclaimers—God gets the credit for all that goes on.
In the eyes of people who work here, Ralph’s humility distinguishes him from a typical boss. "He doesn’t seem like he’s above everybody," says Eva Madrigal, who’s worked with the Broetjes for more than 18 years. "He’s very different from someone with money."
Madrigal, who is now the Broetjes’ director of housing and community affairs, has done pretty much every job on the orchard. She’s planted trees in the nursery, helped with the seasonal harvests, worked on the line in the warehouse, and—in her current position—helped families find counselors, translators, and even tutors to assist with difficult schoolwork. Madrigal speaks of the "great respect" that the Broetjes have among the employees, pointing to worker longevity as evidence. "We have people who have been here for more than 20 years," she says. "Some families have been here since day one."
FOR AGRICULTURAL workers, housing is the issue in Washington these days, as it is elsewhere. The problem is most acute for those who harvest short-season crops, like cherries and apples. (An estimated 15,000 workers pick the state’s $200 million cherry crop for two to four weeks each June.) Most growers don’t provide any housing at all—only 200 of the state’s 1,000 largest apple growers provide housing for farm workers—and many workers live in their cars or make-shift campgrounds. This year the state spent $1.2 million to provide tents for field workers, with central cooking facilities, refrigerators, drinking water, and toilets in temporary tent cities, which are moved from one location to another by state prisoners.
While some growers have expressed their satisfaction at these arrangements, advocates for the workers wonder why those who pick our food are treated like second-class citizens. "We are talking about families staying in tents for a substantial amount of time," said Guadalupe Gamboa, head of the United Farm Workers in Washington. "They have no privacy whatsoever, even to change their clothes. I would rather see this money go into decent housing."
Decent housing is exactly where Ralph and Cheryl Broetje decided to put a large chunk of their money. In 1991 and ’92, they built 121 single-family homes and apartments for their employees. Each house cost $50,000 to build. Rents are below market rates, ranging from $275/month for the two-bedroom apartments to $400/month for a four-bedroom house. Not surprisingly, the housing is in great demand. There’s a long waiting list to get in, and some families have lived in the community since it opened.
The decision to build worker housing didn’t come out of the blue or even out of an abstract desire to do the right thing. (As Cheryl says, "I’ve never met anyone who does good in the abstract.") The seeds of the Vista Hermosa housing community were planted when the company built an on-site warehouse and packing plant in 1987.
"Once you have more than 150 women working on the line, you start hearing stories that we didn’t hear from the men [working in the fields]," Cheryl says. "We heard horror stories of children being locked in rooms—they’re away from their roots, their extended families here. They would keep older kids out of school to babysit," contributing to the high dropout rate among Latino students. To meet the need for daycare, the Broetjes built New Horizons pre-school, where 60 children—including several of Ralph and Cheryl’s grandchildren—receive care at a cost of $7 per child per day, about a third of what it costs to operate the facility (the Broetjes cover the remainder).
"The daycare center started showing us more intimate looks into the family," says Cheryl. "Our people would be trying to drive out here from the Tri-Cities or Walla Walla, and Immigration would stop them. They had to get the children up in the middle of the night to get them out here so they could start working. They’re here for 12 hours, and then they have to haul them clear home. What kind of family life do you have? What kind of rest and relaxation do you get? And those who didn’t have cars had to pay exorbitant prices to those who did have cars to haul them out here. We said, this is terrible. We have to have houses!
"When you hear these stories, and you live with these people, and now they’re your friends, you think, We can’t have Marie and Juan and Rosita and Jorge having to live this kind of existence."
In 1992, Vista Hermosa—the name, chosen by the residents, means "beautiful view"—was born. The most beautiful view, however, isn’t the scenery, but the houses themselves. Like everything the Broetjes have built, they were constructed with careful attention to the aesthetic. With attached garages and manicured lawns, the Spanish-style houses with their clay-tile roofs look like typical middle-class homes. And that’s just the point for Cheryl and Ralph, who were aiming at something more than merely a residence. "We decided we wanted to make it a real community," Ralph said, "a place where they could feel at home."
The result is that the people who live in Vista Hermosa take care of each other. "You bring people in and they start feeling good about their house," Cheryl said. "It’s clean and they have a yard and they look at the people on either side and they say, ‘How are you doing? How are your kids doing?’ and it spreads out from there."
WHEN CHERYL AND RALPH bought their first orchard in the early ’70s, it was just a business—and not a very successful one at that. "We started with everything going wrong, except that we liked each other a lot," Cheryl said. "We were just 22. We had no money, and here we were trying to buy this big cherry orchard. Two weeks after we signed the papers, it froze out."
In fact, the first three years’ crops failed, and the couple didn’t think they would be able to keep the farm. "A young couple like that trying to get into farming today—are you kidding?" Cheryl said. "It breaks our heart how many small farms in Washington state fail." In that, Washington is no different than the rest of the country, which loses more than 500 family farms each week; there are now only about 2 million family farms, down from a peak of almost 8 million.
The Broetjes were among the lucky ones. Or, as they see it, the blessed. After years of failure, they finally brought in a successful crop. And then another. They bought land near their hometown of Yakima. Then a friend convinced them to buy another 400 acres an hour or two away near the Snake River. Wheat country. Out in the middle of nowhere. No place for apples. At least not then. Over the next few years, Ralph and Cheryl bought several thousands acres of adjacent land. When the ’80s recession and high interest rates forced them to sell off their Yakima holdings, they moved to the Snake River land. And Broetje Orchards was born.
That wasn’t the only thing being born for the Broetjes. A trip to India in the 1970s resulted in the adoption of their son, Trevor. He was the first of six children from India that Ralph and Cheryl adopted, joining their three homegrown children. Ralph’s vision as a 15-year-old of helping "kids from India" has come true.
Their dedication to children isn’t limited to their own. Along with the daycare center for preschoolers and the elementary school, the Broetjes have made a major investment in helping at-risk teens from all over the country. Like much of their work, it grew out of a connection with someone in need. A 17-year-old girl, who now works in the daycare center, had run away from home. "She was on her way to Mexico, and we were going to lose her," Cheryl says. "Her pastor found her in a hotel. So we madly looked around for a place to send her." The realization that there was nowhere in the region for her to go led to building the Jubilee Youth Ranch.
The ranch is seven miles from the Broetjes’ orchards—and worlds away, it seems, from many of the problems and temptations that get young people in trouble in the first place. The facility has two dorms that house 48 young people each. Cheryl says they plan to add a gym and chapel to go with the existing staff housing, cafeteria and kitchen, administrative offices, and a junior high and high school called the Jubilee Christian Academy. Along with the year-round residents of Jubilee Youth Ranch, the school is open to youth who live in a 10-mile radius as well as children of staff members—including the Broetjes. (A recent basketball box score from the local newspaper lists the leading scorers for Jubilee Christian: "Zamora, Escalera, Almanzar, Zaragoza, Broetje, Broetje.")
CLEARLY, WHAT’S HAPPENING in the drylands of southeast Washington isn’t just an example of philanthropy. Ralph and Cheryl Broetje make a lot of money in their business, and they give a sizable percentage of it away—to sustain the various ministries they’ve created, but also to a myriad of other programs, at home and abroad.
But charity is easy. It’s a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily have to affect a person’s lifestyle. (Think Bill Gates.)
What’s happening here is more like discipleship. Discipleship calls you to live a certain way. It’s about freeing yourself from the world’s definition of success, even the world’s definition of wealth. Biblically, the proper purpose of wealth is to build up the community, and there’s no arguing that Cheryl and Ralph have done just that.
Tom Hale, former president of the Washington Apple Commission, said, "The [Broetjes are] not satisfied with just saying, ‘We will take from the profits, and we will support worldwide Christian ministries.’ They’re saying, ‘We want to live what our beliefs are.’" Hale said the Broetje operation "is the most unique business environment I’ve ever been around."
The key to that uniqueness is a redefinition of what constitutes the bottom line. The orchard is a successful business, to be sure, but many of the biggest financial decisions are obviously made for reasons other than monetary profit. Spending millions of dollars on decent employee housing, for instance, isn’t going to pay off, short term, in the bookkeeper’s ledger. There are certainly benefits, but, as Ralph says, "There’s no way to put a dollar value on it—it makes such a tremendous difference in people’s lives."
Making a difference in people’s lives—that pretty much sums up Ralph and Cheryl’s vision. Funny, it also pretty much sums up what faith is all about.
JIM RICE is managing editor of Sojourners and a native of southeast Washington.