Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Walla Walla orchardists partner with employees; profits used for global poverty relief
from Catholic Charities
(From the Nov. 11, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)
Workers in the cherry-growing portion of Broetje Orchards make decisions about where profits from that fruit crop are distributed. Proceeds help support Catholic Relief Services project in India, among others. (IR photo from Catholic Charities)
Cheryl and Ralph Broetje didn’t have college degrees. Nor did they have any money; they’d lost every dime they’d put into their cherry orchard for their first four years. But when things in their apple orchard began to go well, the Broetjes began to wonder how they could connect with God’s people throughout the world.
In the early 1990s, a man from Oaxaca, Mexico, arrived on the farm. He and a fellow priest were housing nearly 100 children in a warehouse in Oaxaca – some orphaned, but many from families just too poor to support them. The men were seeking funds to build better facilities for the children and create a “family” environment in which to raise them.
At that time, the 50 acres of cherries were performing very poorly and the Broetjes were considering replacing them with apples. Remembering the story about the barren fig tree in Luke 13, they agreed to give the cherries one more year; any profits made would be given to the orphanage, as a pledge to God.
That year, the orchard made $350,000, and the City of Children was built with the money. The Broetjes said, “That was fun! Let’s do it every year!”
Broetje Orchards has been more profitable with each passing year, and the Vista Hermosa Foundation, started by Cheryl and Ralph and now chaired by their daughter Suzanne, gives away 50-75 percent of the money made. Monies from the apple orchards are allocated by the family foundation, while the cherry committees, made up of workers on the farm, choose to send the money made from the cherries to Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, and Uganda.
It’s unusual for an orchard to let the workers decide where money should go. According to foreman Cali Ortega, “The people are happy because the owner lets them take the decision.”
Why do the Broetjes do things in this unorthodox manner? “To give it heart and life, the workers were needed,” said Cheryl. “They came and they loved these trees for all they were worth. The trees flourished over time. We’ve learned so much from the people who came to nurture our trees, and they’re the ones who impressed us with the needs of migratory workers.”
Some of the workers are intimidated at first about being on the committee to select recipients, but they soon warm to the task. “Now when we have committees people come in with ideas,” says Ron Appleby, who has served on the committee 12 times. “They take so much pride and ownership in what we do here.”
In partnership with Catholic Relief Services (CRS – administered in Eastern Washington by Catholic Charities), the Foundation currently is funding a project in India that will help get children off the streets and into school. CRS is the U.S. bishops’ overseas development and emergency relief organization.
“We were impressed with CRS,” Suzanne said, “because they are addressing issues not just of relief, but also of social justice and empowering people.”
Ralph Broetje’s interest in India was sparked by a missionary who came to Ralph’s Sunday school class when he was 15. He vowed then that someday he’d do something to help poor people. He and Cheryl expanded on that initial interest when they adopted six children from India — two from Bombay, and four siblings, whose parents had died on the streets, from Calcutta.
Now the family foundation board addresses needs in Africa, Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, Serbia, China, Indonesia, and the U.S., as well as in India. Said Suzanne, “Children are the heart and soul of my parents’ dream.” That explains why there’s a new preschool right at the orchard, why a gymnasium has been built, and a library is in the works. Creating a community allows the parents to keep close tabs on their kids, rather than turning them over to a day-care miles away from their work site.
Further, when it became clear that the 24-hour production during harvest times was taking a toll on the working families, the Broetjes built a second production line so that daytime work could be doubled and parents could be home with their children at night.
“I’d call my work servant leadership,” said Cheryl. “I don’t care for the word ‘philanthropy’ — I prefer ‘discipleship.’ I consider this hard-core Christian activism. The rewards are the letters you get, seeing the lives change, the empowerment of the workers. You can’t pay people to be dedicated to a job with their best selves.”
The satisfaction of the owners and the workers at Broetje Orchards radiates out to the larger world, and a dream is being fulfilled.