Broetje Orchards: Farming with Faith

The following article reports on “The Big Apple,” our August 25 Learning on the Land event that toured Breotje Orchards. 

Dena Martin, Waitsburg Times August 31, 2017

Like most anyone who has lived in the Touchet Valley for any length of time, I was vaguely familiar with Broetje Orchards and the work they do to help others. But when I learned that an upcoming Learning on the Land event called 'The Big Apple' included a tour of the orchards and the story of its founders I was quick to sign up.

The opening talk took place at the Vista Hermosa chapel, under a mural of a smiling Jesus, opening his arms to the orchard and community below. Vista Hermosa, located about 30 miles west of Waitsburg, near Fishhook Park, is the community the Broetje's have spent years developing to provide resources and benefits to their workers. 

Roger Bairstow, head of corporate responsibility and human services (and married to one of the Broetje daughters), welcomed us with a brief overview of the Broetje story. In 1960, at age 15, Ralph Broetje attended a hunger retreat and left with the dream of owning an apple orchard that would help feed hungry children.

He married Cheryl Broetje in 1967 and the couple soon bought their first cherry orchard in Benton City, Wash. Bairstow said the first three years were disastrous with the first three years showing no yield. The couple was ready to throw in the towel but they had several strong supporters that encouraged them and the banks extended credit so they carried on. Year four was a success. 

They became quite successful, expanded into apples, and purchased land along the Snake River in Prescott, Wash. where Ralph took a great risk by planting a huge block of Granny Smith apples. 

The business hit another roadblock in the early 80's when the farm crisis hit and banks recalled outstanding loans and denied new ones. The Broetjes sold land, equipment, and even their home on Actinium Ridge in Yakima.

They ended up moving to the one property the bank couldn't find a buyer for, Prescott. The bank allowed Ralph to serve and manager with a buy-back option over five years. 

Bairstow said a massive storm in the early eighties ended up being an almost miraculous event that put the Broetjes back on their feet. The storm traversed Washington State and wiped out the majority of the Red Delicious apple crop. Broetje Orchards was one of the few plantings that didn't get hit, and the event helped them get back on their feet. 

For 25 years, Broetje Orchards has been one of the largest privately apple orchards in the United States. Today they own 5,000 contiguous acres near Prescott., 625 acres in Benton City, another 550 acres in Wallula, Wash. that are devoted to organic fruit production. 

Through their trials, the Broetjes were reminded of Ralph's vision of using their orchard to help others. However, they realized that Ralph's childhood dream of helping Indians far away would instead need to be manifested in helping the migrant workers in their very own orchards.

Bairstow said the first thing the Broetjes did was to change the nature of the work. Because farm work is seasonal, when the work goes away, the workers are let go, creating a boom-or-bust migrant cycle. He said it isn't unusual to hear stories of children who had attended 15 schools in their 12 years of schooling. 

To help provide a sense of continuity the Broetjes maintained the same acreage with the same amount of work but hired fewer workers to stretch the work out as long as possible. They also looked for additional ways to keep people busy and built an on-site packing plant which allowed them to employ more people.

That was in 1987 when they wrote the mission statement they still follow today, "To be a quality fruit company committed to bearing fruit that will last." 

Many of the line workers were women, who tended to share more about what was going on inside the home, Bairstow said. They heard stories of kids being left home alone, multiple families being packed into small houses, leaky roofs and pipes, and more. Cheryl was deeply impacted and disturbed that such conditions could exist in our great nation, Bairstow said.

In 1988 the orchard established New Horizon Early Childhood Education Center at the orchard so that employees could leave their younger children on site during the day and older children weren't pulled from school to watch younger siblings. 

In 1990 they tackled the issue of inadequate housing and built over 120 single-family homes and apartment units to rent at low cost to year-round employees. Residents named the community "Vista Hermosa" which means "Beautiful View." 

"We tried to do more than build roofs and walls. We tried to build a community to bring people to be nurtured and find their gifts and talents," Bairstow said.

As the business prospered, the Broetjes continued to expand the orchards and added new varieties of apples. In 1995 they built a cold-room and controlled atmosphere storage. Interestingly, during our tour, Tyler Broetje, explained that the apples we eat now are last year's crop, and that apples may be held in storage for up to three years. 

In 2001 they purchased acreage in Wallula where they focus on organic growing and they added a second packing-line in 2003. The new line helped meet increased consumer demand but also served the community by eliminating the need for night shifts, allowing family members to be home together. 

In 2005 they purchased over 100 acres of ground in East Pasco and created Tierra Vida community, which is modeled after Vista Hermosa, except that employees can buy homes rather than rent. 

In 2010 the orchards obtained exclusive rights to grow the Opal apple, which is a naturally non-browning cross between the Golden Delicious and the Topaz apple. They are the first U.S. apple variety to be verified by the non-GMO Project in North America for non-GMO food.

Today, Bairstow said the orchard employs 1,200 year-round employees, with 2,200 working during harvest. He said they produce about 7% of the apples in Washington State, which produces 70% of the nation's apples. 

"You could roughly estimate that one out of every 20 apples on the store shelves is one of ours," he said. 

Bairstow said the two biggest challenges the orchard continues to face are immigration law and water rights. He noted that the orchard advertises hundreds of jobs each year that go unfilled, and they have a hard time believing immigrants are taking jobs from natural-born citizens.

While still being a big business, competing in a global economy, they strive to be more than just a paycheck for their employees, Bairstow said. They offer scholarships, grant programs, housing, daycare, and elementary school, a community center, and teach leadership and skills.

Bairstow said they focus on three pillars of philosophy. First, is teaching servant leadership. 

"There are not enough leaders to mentor every single person in this company. For a better society, we need everyone to be helping everyone. The basic test for us is, by our actions and our decisions are we making people healthier, freer, wiser and more likely to serve others," Bairstow said. 

The second pillar revolves around avoiding "toxic charity," the type of giving that makes recipients dependent rather than independent.

Thirdly, they relate to children in their daycare, elementary school, and even their employees with an understanding of Trauma Informed Care. Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can cause toxic stress and put people in a permanent state of fight-or-flight, which must be handled appropriately. 

Bairstow said Vista Hermosa has had a successful partnership with the Prescott School District which was upset by recent changes in charter school law. He said that gave them the opportunity to talk with parents about needs. This year they will open their own small, private project-based Christian elementary school that focuses on the whole child. 

Ralph and Cheryl Broetje have also been the catalysts in the creation of the Center for Sharing and Jubilee Leadership Academy, but those are two separate stories, entirely. The story of the Broetje family, and the way they have lived out their dream to impact their community for good is incredibly inspirational.

This tour was provided by the Blue Mountain Land Trust as part of their Learning on the Land education series, which covers a wide variety of topics and events. Some of upcoming events in September include 'Ancient Palouse' which explores the first human settlement in the region, a trip on the Eagle Cap Excursion Train, an introduction to painting watercolors with Joyce Anderson. Visit http://bmlt.org/new-events/ to register for upcoming events. I highly recommend checking them out!