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Orchard implements servant leadership as its business style

Taking their faith seriously, Ralph and Cheryl Broetje not only chose a biblical concept for their brand, First Fruits of Washington, but also apply biblical principles of servant leadership to their business operations.

Not only is their approach profitable but also they take faith another step by sharing the profits with people in their orchards, in their community, domestically and around the world.

Cheryl said their faith is ecumenical, working as partners with Catholic and Protestant efforts.

Ralph Broetje
Ralph Broetje, left, and Chuck Barrett, center, check apples.

Ralph grew up on a chicken farm in Yakima, attending an Evangelical United Brethren Church, and Cheryl, on a dairy farm in Tieton, involved in a Presbyterian church.  They now attend a community church in the Tri-Cities.

Several lessons in faith have moved them along their path.

Cheryl and Ralph bought their first cherry orchard in Benton City in 1968 after they married.

“The first three years, we lost the crops to frost, rain and fruit flies,” Cheryl said. 

The fourth year it produced and eventually they paid their bills and sold it, moving to planting apples along the Snake River.

Over the years, they added to their acres, and now own a 5,700-acre primarily apple enterprise, First Fruits of Washington, one of the largest orchards in the United States.  About 4,700 acres are in a frost-free area along the Snake River near Prescott, 625 in Benton City and 550 organic acres in Wallula.  During harvest, 900 temporary employees join about 900 year-round employees.

Their style of doing business grew in part from a dream Ralph had when he was 15.  A missionary who visited his church in Yakima told of children suffering in India. Ralph wanted to have an apple orchard and use the money to help children in India.

The Broetjes first decided adopt children from Mexico, but found it was not possible.  So they adopted six children from Calcutta and Bombay, India, which they have visited several times.   With their three biological daughters, they have nine young adult children, ranging from 23 to 41.  Most are involved in the orchard business.

On their first trip to Mexico in 1983, the Broetjes began to “see things in a different light,” learning how hard it is for people “to dream about achieving anything” if there are no opportunities.

Realizing that their employees were economic refugees, they began turning their orchard business into their mission. 

They created more jobs, building a packing plant and offices to give people more opportunities.

In the late 1980s, Ralph tried cherries again, planting 50 acres.  When they did not produce for three years, he was ready to cut the trees down, but he decided to wait another year and dedicate them to ministry. The next year, the crop was bountiful.  They donated proceeds to a Christian children’s home in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The cherries have flourished since.  They donate 100 percent of proceeds from the cherries to nonprofits. A committee of orchard and warehouse employees review projects and allocate funds.

The Broetjes’ philosophy of servant leadership means putting people first, connecting their business goals and spiritual values. 

“Servant leadership means leading by serving, with Jesus as the prototype.  It means that we serve our employees’ needs, so they will do their best, reach their dreams, live in community and find meaning in life,” said Cheryl.  “Communities in which people respect each other, listen and have compassion, make life richer.

“We are a team on the farm.  Everyone has a role.  Everyone is important.  No one is better,” she said.  “Too often the businesses in the corporate sector, where the power and money is, keeps their business and ministry separate.”

Cheryl has taught servant leadership in such places as Kenya, Mexico, India, the Philippines and other countries through the Center for Sharing, a nonprofit she formed to help people discover their calling and create programs.

Recently in the Philippines, she learned of an Asian business conference that is part of “a growing movement of ‘marketplace ministry,’ understanding that our business is our ministry.” 

That’s their approach.  Their brand name, First Fruits of Washington, comes from the biblical call for people to offer the first and best of their harvests to God, out of gratitude for their blessings.

“Our profit is a byproduct of treating people with dignity, respect and mutuality, equals in every sense,” said Cheryl.  “Employees care about a business that cares for them.”

So Broetje Orchards provides Hispanic workers in their orchards and packing plant with year-round jobs, affordable housing, child-care, a school and scholarships.

The community they developed in Prescott, called Vista Hermosa—meaning beautiful view—includes 125 affordable rental homes and apartments housing, where about 22 percent of the employees and their families live in a community of about 600 people, said Cheryl. Other employees live in nearby communities and drive to the orchards each day.

In 1990, Ralph and Cheryl formed Vista Hermosa Foundation to distribute about 75 percent of their profits to local, domestic and international programs.

They fund Vista Hermosa’s child-care center for up to 90 children of employees, a Christian elementary school, a summer educational camp for grade school children, and scholarships for first-generation, low-income college students.

The international grants go for hunger alleviation, economic empowerment, education, leadership development and migration programs, such as the Catholic Relief Services/Mexico farmers project.   When they decide to fund an international project, the Broetje’s do more than write checks.  For example, Cheryl volunteered at Mother Theresa’s House of the Dying.

They often go abroad, meet people and become engaged in efforts, which include:  providing plows and oxen for farmers; training Maasai women leaders; micro-lending; ending bonded labor and child servitude; sheltering street girls; reforesting land, and building Christian schools in Kenya, Uganda, India, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Central America and the United States.

For information, call 547-1711 or visit www.firstfruits.com.

 

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