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.