Cheryl Broetje: An Orchard With Fruit That Lasts

Cheryl Broetje and her husband, Ralph, own and operate Broetje Orchards, which has operated since 1980 along the Snake River in the Southeastern part of Washington state. She and Ralph are the parents of nine children, ages 18 – 35, six of whom are East Indian by birth. They have six grandchildren.

Their goal is to use their business to serve the common good. As a result, Vista Hermosa was born to serve an immigrant community of approximately 650 Latinos who now live on their farm. It includes a preschool, an elementary school, a gym, chapel, grocery store, and coin-operated laundry through which a variety of social and educational opportunities are offered. Ten years ago, they started a residential program for struggling teen boys known as Jubilee Youth Ranch. About 50 boys are there currently.

Over the years Ms. Broetje has primarily served on the not-for-profit (or “community profit”) side of the business. She founded the first of several not-for-profit faith-based organizations, The Center For Sharing, in 1986. Through the center, she largely lives out her passion for equipping people to live in ways that nurture a life-giving community between rich and poor, while serving marginalized people groups. Her work has allowed her to act in a role as midwife at the birthing of some 25 programs in the United States that serve among the poor and marginalized, such as housing, medical clinics, outreach and residential youth programs, and educational programs.

She has traveled to many places around the world in that role. The most recent extension of that work has occurred internationally. A servant-leadership house for young adults is nearing completion in the south of Mexico, and Ms. Broetje team-taught a five-week seminar in servant-leadership for clergy from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania during September 2005 in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Ethix: Running an apple business sounds daunting to me. You face significant challenges from weather, international sales and competition, and a significant migrant workforce.

Cheryl Broetje: My daughter, our general manager, told me recently that China is spending $1 a day for labor; we’re spending $60 a day, per worker. Ten years ago, China was not a player in the apple market. Today they produce half of the world’s apples.

In addition, China has a 30 percent tariff on apples coming in. Mexico has a 47 percent tariff on our apples going in. Free trade for the few who can play!

What do you regard as the most difficult things you do, day-to-day, in the apple business?

One is the issue of our employees. We estimate that upwards of half of them are here without legal documents. We require proper I.D., and they give us I.D., but we can’t be detectives to determine which I.D. is real. When the government calls us or sends out those nice little papers saying please advise this person that something’s not right with their card, we do our “due diligence,” of course. We do everything that we’re required to do by law.

The Agriculture Jobs Bill was just voted down, where our workers could have become legal in three years. Now we are concerned about [the Department of] Homeland Security. For any number of reasons, we could be forced out of business by the government’s treatment of our employee group.

A few years ago it was the salmon issue. They were talking about pulling out all the dams on the Snake River. A total of 13 orchards would cease to exist. We were so happy two or three years ago when there was a record salmon run, but that issue is far from over, also.

Getting Started

How did you get into the orchard business? Is this where you were raised?

My husband, Ralph, and I met in traffic court when we were teenagers. He was charged with going too slow in a red corvette, and I was charged with going too fast in my parents’ white Ford station wagon. We thought we might provide a little balance for each other! But he surprised me with his dream to run an orchard a few months after we were married.

We did not have college educations, and the only money we had came from selling his red corvette. But with the help of his father, we got a loan to buy a cherry orchard. Two weeks after signing papers on the orchard, early frost froze all of the buds on the trees. The next year we were rained out. The next year we were hit with an infestation of cherry flies.

We had no money to wait four years for a crop, but we trusted God. No one gave up on us including the bank, our parents, or the former owner of the orchard. Finally we were able to get a crop, then another, and another. We paid off our debts and began to put money away. As we grew, we developed primarily in varieties of apples, and the cherry part of our orchards became a much more minor part.

Values for the Business

How did you establish the set of values by which you run the orchards?

We had started our lives together on the margin, so this helped us to respect and value others in this position.

Early leaders in our lives acted out the values they believed. Values such as a commitment to serve others with a special eye to the vulnerable; empowerment of others; sharing of resources; mutual respect; and community.

We had started our lives together on the margin, so this helped us to respect and value others in this position. In the early days, our workforce was made up of white migrant workers who started in Texas, moved to California, and then came up the coast to Washington, following the harvest. Almost overnight this group stopped coming and was replaced by people with brown faces who spoke Spanish and were primarily young males.

This “special eye to the vulnerable” is very real in the agricultural business, and we quickly learned that these values must be a way that we operate. This business is hard work and people who have other ways to earn money don’t come. Any white person who comes out, we hire them, and we make a place for them. It amounts to two or three people a year.

We’re big into service. If you’re going to work here, you’re going to serve, from the top of the organization to the bottom. And we are a community, not just a workplace. That can get a little messy sometimes.

How did these ideas develop?

We needed to learn more about our new workforce, so in 1982 our family took a Christmas trip of perspective to Mexico. There we witnessed our first glimpse of a reality unknown to us: Families living in garbage dumps; other families, hoping for a piece of land to call their own, were living in boxes the size of a washer or drier just waiting; still other families were stacked in fragile adobe homes along hillsides everywhere. Our family was volunteering with an organization that works along the Mexican border. We arrived at a home just as a mother came out and said the baby next door had just died. She put a bowl of rice in our hands and asked us if we could please feed her child. We went in to find a young adult woman with no ears or eyes tied on a box waiting to eat.

My friend began feeding her, and I sat by her side putting my hand on her shoulder. Then this young woman began to feel my face. Soon she seemed to lose interest in the food, and instead, gave me a hug and then laid on my shoulder. This small incident changed my life. At that moment, a pink neon sign lit up in my mind’s eye and began to blink the words of Jesus, “whenever you feed someone who is overlooked or ignored, you do it to me.”

Pope Paul VI said, “The human right to feed the family supersedes the right of a nation to establish borders and control entrance to and from that nation.”

After experiences like this, we came to believe that those showing up in our orchard were economic refugees. Yes, many were here without legal documents, but they were desperate to work toward a better future. In a statement made in his 1967 pastoral letter, Pope Paul VI said, “The human right to feed the family supersedes the right of a nation to establish borders and control entrance to and from that nation.” The Mexican consul, Se~nor Medrazo, calls the Mexican workers in the United States heroes. Together they sent $16 billion home last year to support their families in Mexico, making this Mexico’s number-one income source.

We came to believe that God was calling us not only to grow apples, but also to use that work as a context in which people who were being overlooked or ignored could grow as well.

In 1987, we built a warehouse, and Broetje Orchards became a grower, packer, and shipper organization. We hired 150 women to work in the warehouses, and we began hearing stories of the families of these immigrants. Children were left locked in apartments so their parents could work. Other kids were pulled out of school to take care of their younger siblings. There were serious health issues.

So first we built an on-site day care/preschool. One family started to ask us about housing. Their boy was being bitten by rats as he slept at night. In this country! We knew we had to do something more. Our people needed decent, affordable housing.

By 1990, our orchards were producing well, and we had $5.5 million in the bank. We had achieved the “American dream.” But our employees were excluded from that. So we decided build some housing next to the warehouse. We tried to find a financial partner, but nothing worked out. So we took all of our savings and built 100 two-, three-, and four-bedroom homes along with a gym, chapel, store, and laundry. The first residents held a contest, and named the new community Vista Hermosa (beautiful view).

Of those first residents, about a third had kids with some prior gang involvement. We realized we would need to become social workers as well as apple growers or face the possibility of living next door to a new ghetto. Over the years, a number of programs have been birthed as a response to the needs of our people: an on-site bilingual library, a Christian elementary school, a residential program for at-risk teen boys (Jubilee Youth Ranch), after-school tutoring, college scholarships, ESL, parenting and job training, etc. We keep discovering new needs that, if not addressed, will become barriers to the health, stability, and development of our families.

I understand you have about 900 permanent workers and 900 transient workers?

Close. But “transient” is not a word we ever use.

What is the right word?

Well, “migrant” would be the legal description, but about 80 percent of our people come back to work for us every year. A thousand people work full time for us now, and we have about 125 families living on the farm, permanently. You can only be classified as a migrant for four years. We, too, were migrants when we first moved to the orchard, because we had moved three times in less than four years. So the Broetjes were a migrant family. But after that, you lose your migrant status if you stay. So the people who live on our farm are not true migrants anymore. They are settlers.

Balancing the Work

And the ones who work full time, what do they do when you’re not picking apples?

That’s where Ralph is brilliant. It fits with the product and market strategy that he has developed. We used to plant red apples and people bought them. Now, consumers want a certain taste, or certain packaging, or a cute little variation. It’s just gone crazy. And if it’s good today it doesn’t mean it’s going to be good next year. It’s a global, consumer-driven industry, more and more now.

Ralph has a capacity to foresee what varieties might be popular. You can’t just pull out trees every year and expect a yield, so you have to be thinking ahead. In doing this, he has a strategy to stagger the varieties so that we have the longest possible growing season that we can have. Cherries come on in July, we’re picking something straight through to when the snow flies in November. Now as soon as those apples are off, then they start immediately with pruning, and that takes months — we have close to a million trees out there! Early spring is our lowest time, but there’s painting to be done, and new varieties to plant. With his strategies, we can keep people working year round with few exceptions.

How many employees do you have in social service education or administration?

About 150 including teachers, social workers, store managers, and those in housing programs, etc.

Tell us about the evening program.

When our first residents came, Eva Madrigal, SRH director, reported to us before very long that about a third of these kids had had some antisocial-behavior history. They had been uprooted from traditional communities, on the move, living in poverty, without a supportive community in place. Many come acting out and angry. They didn’t ask to be brought here. They’re socially ostracized and rejected, so they learn to play the game by the right rules, and they’re still dead in the water if they are here undocumented. It fills them with rage.

And so creating a sense of belonging became an instant focus for the community in those early 1990s. In those early days of community-building, we had chapel every Saturday night. Then we would all go over to the gym and we would have refreshments or dinner and we’d play games or we’d share stories or do business there, as a community. Over time that has all evolved to resources like a weight room, computer lab, basketball teams, or fitness programs — you know, anything and everything that a few people express an interest in.

We also offer parenting programs, ESL, and other resources that will help them maintain and improve their spiritual, mental, emotional, physical health, and grow forward in ways that meet their interests and abilities within the limited time they have. Our families work hard, and are tired at the end of the day.

How do you deal with the cost issues?

The day care costs around $25 a day for each child, but the most anybody pays is $7. We subsidize about two-thirds of the preschool income so that they can afford to put their children there. This is not primarily about baby-sitting anymore, but about preparing children so that they can enter into U.S. schools on par with other students.

Families who live in Vista Hermosa pay rent of about 40 to 50 percent of market value, based on their income. How to create livable wages is also huge issue for us. Many employees earn about $7.50 per hour, and that’s not much. So, we try to offset the gap with other in-kind goods and services. And we keep thinking about how to increase their assets.

We bring instructors in from the outside for the ESL class, and charge $10 for a year of instruction. Other basic services such as an open gym, computer lab, and college tutoring, are part of the grant program and we don’t charge for those things. Summer day camp gives elementary kids a place to go all day, every day, for minimum fares. Here they receive academic tutoring, go on field trips, and take swimming lessons. All children of employees are eligible for scholarships to college.

How are we faithful to the people we serve and the community that we’re a part of in light of the larger agricultural industry we are part of, and that in terms of global competition? That’s our challenge!

Could you give us the total value of the subsidies for these programs?

I don’t know because we don’t look at it like that. We are looking at people value, and we are doing what we can year to year. When we have a profitable year we give away a large percent of our income anyway. We have chosen to answer the question, “How much is enough?” and the rest is given away.

Do you have people who leave this picking business and “graduate” to other types of work?

Yes, but we wish we had more. We are seeing more of this with the second generation. Most of the parents are working as hard as they can work to allow their children to be the beneficiaries. Their futures will be different. About 40 percent of the people who leave Vista Hermosa today are going on to become first-time homeowners, and that’s very exciting for us. Now they’re building assets for themselves, and becoming good citizens in the communities to which they move, because they have practiced community here.

Technology and People

How does technology fit in to running a business like yours?

We built the first packing line with that very question in mind. Our mission was to ask “How can we best serve these people?” For us, the first step is all about creating steady jobs. Here again, Ralph gets the credit, because he really thought long and hard about that. We could have automated fully then and done away with a lot of the jobs.

But we asked a different question. What are the maximum amount of jobs we can make for human beings here — and still pump out enough product to be competitive? And like I say, we have a great team of people who are working with that every day. Our packing line is beautiful. But it was designed with the balance of remaining competitive and putting people to work. We try to grow apples, excellent apples … so that we can help people grow.

What about the use of pesticides? How do you think about the environmental issues associated with farming?

We’re proud to tell you we’re 99.9 percent toxic-free, and have been for years. The public just needs to catch up with the times. You may find somebody out there that’s still using illegal pesticides occasionally, but it isn’t happening in our neck of the woods, and hasn’t been for a long, long time.

Where can we find your apples?

Costco, Albertson’s, Safeway locally. It just depends on who’s buying this week.

Do they have your sticker on them?

They should have our label, “First Fruits,” with a sticker showing little hands holding an apple. These are Trevor’s hands, our son from Calcutta. Years ago when we needed a logo, we put a apple in his hands one day, and took a picture of him holding it when he was about 2 years old. Unfortunately, today more of the buyers are dictating the boxes we put the apples in. So you may not always see those hands.

It would be harder to run things the way you do if you had shareholders to be concerned about wouldn’t it?

Yes, it would. But most of the ideas for running a business while respecting people are clearly transferable to other businesses. By not having other shareholders, we have another problem. Ralph and I legally own all the assets of Broetje Orchards ourselves. That’s a lot of power in the hands of two people.

Today our true work is really about widening the understanding of and commitment to life-giving values that will sustain the community after we are gone.

In 1990, we built a small grocery store. We saw that many men in our community were being destroyed by alcohol. The resulting abuse was horrendous in families as well as the effects in the workplace. And so we built this store, and we said we will not sell alcohol or cigarettes in that store. The vendors called and told us how much money we would lose by not selling their products. But we were calling the shots. It has allowed us to hold to values that we happen to believe in, and we believe that our community is healthier and happier today. Today our true work is really about widening the understanding of and commitment to life-giving values that will sustain the community after we are gone.

Maintaining Accountability

So what keeps you accountable, because you have a lot of power, and a lot of money? I’ve seen other people who started off idealistically and they lose it. Probably an inch at a time. What do you do?

Well I don’t have any fancy answers. I don’t have a college degree and neither does Ralph. Although we are both voracious readers, the Bible has been our main value textbook. We find many stories there that give direction for wise leadership. And many were in agricultural settings so they apply literally!

We also have an open-door policy. Anybody can walk in and talk about the issues or decisions that affect them or their colleagues personally or corporately.

And it sounds like the crew meetings that your employees have also hold you accountable.

Oh, yes! In addition to our crew representative meetings, crew leaders gather every morning at 6 a.m. They share joys and concerns just like a faith community does … somebody’s sick, somebody died yesterday, we need to raise money to ship the body home to Mexico, or help with the family that has just been left with four kids to care for. It’s extraordinary. This is also the place where they review the work schedule, share important information that affects the farm or our people and generally check in with each other as they prepare to lead their teams for another day.

Many of them have little formal education; but they have so much integrity and heart and insight and will to serve. All I can tell you is that it is this spirit that results in trees that bear fruit … fruit that will last.

2 thoughts on “Cheryl Broetje: An Orchard With Fruit That Lasts”

  1. This is the second time that I have read your story. The first was an article write up that I so wanted to share with my husbands ‘Christian’ business owners, although I did not. So much more could be done world wide with the adoption of this kind of heart behind a business plan . So many business owners could truly help their people and be blessed beyond measure. What a vision, If only they would wrap their heads around the concept of helping others first. I am impressed and humbled by all you all have accomplished, living in the spirit, essentially doing all you can so that every good tree bears good fruit. Thank you for your example. Warmest of regards, Susan

  2. I visited Jubilee Ranch in 2003, and was impressed with the quality of care of the staff for the youth.

    The concept of cultivating fruit that will last, in the orchards, and in the people, is unique but as old as the bible.

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