Cheryl and Ralph Broetje says it’s time for growers to stand up for workers.
Devout Christians will tell you God works in mysterious ways.
So, perhaps it was divine intervention that two teenagers from the Yakima Valley in Washington State happened to appear in court on the same day, the same hour, to handle traffic tickets. Cheryl Shelton was there for driving too fast in her parents’ Ford wagon. Ralph Broetje was there for driving his red Corvette too slow.
That first meeting between Ralph and Cheryl led to profound changes, for themselves and for countless others. The couple married in 1967 and with Ralph inspired by a dream of owning an orchard to help people, the young Broetjes borrowed to make a down payment on a cherry orchard.
They stumbled. A freeze destroyed the first crop. Rain the second. And insects the third. But Ralph and Cheryl persisted, and in time thrived spectacularly.
Today, the couple owns and operates one of the largest privately owned apple orchards in the United States with more than 6,000 acres of apples. Based in Prescott, Washington, Broetje Orchards owns more than 11 million square feet of controlled atmosphere and cold storage space and two packing lines. The company employs 1,100 people year round and another 1,000 workers during the fall harvest.
It’s a stunning story of business acumen. But that’s not the story Cheryl Broetje came to share when she spoke in February to the annual meeting of the Washington Growers League in Yakima.
Though her personality seems gentle and she laughs readily from enjoyment of people and life in general, Cheryl brought a forceful message. Broetje Orchards and other farms had prospered because Latino workers had stood with the growers. Now, she said, it was time for growers to stand with the workers.
Broetje was urging growers to capitalize on what appeared to be a groundswell of interest in a rewrite of U.S. immigration laws, one that could not only address the critical labor issue that affects farmers but also address what she regarded as a fundamental test of our values as a nation.
Broetje said a solution to the immigration issue will emerge when people stop seeing the problem as a choice between law or human rights. The nation needs to see the solution as emerging from both honoring law and respecting rights. They are not contradictory, she said.
Broetje is a powerful advocate because her family’s business success derives directly from policies shaped by faith. “Our business goals are not separated from our spiritual values,” the family declares on the company Web site. “Broetje Orchards is committed to caring for those who work in our business and for those in need in communities around the world.”
Broetje Orchards provides an astounding array of benefits for workers: Housing, daycare for workers’ children, health care, a library, language training, home-ownership assistance, scholarships, counseling, basketball and other recreational programs, and a grocery store. A Broetje foundation called Vista Hermosa cofunds an elementary school with the Prescott School District. (Learn much more at the Broetje Orchard’s Web site, www.firstfruits.com.) You could credit it to faith-based generosity, but that would be missing the other half of the Broetje story. If you want people to return to work each day, and the next year, you need to treat them well, she said.
In her talk to the growers, Broetje offered no specific policy proposals. Instead, she spoke of the urgency for change in immigration law. She supports an organizing drive in Washington and across the nation among traditional advocates of immigration reform and people from faith communities, law enforcement, and business organizations. By enlisting people from what is regarded as the base of conservative Republicans, organizers see improved chances in the GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.
Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, said immigration reform is the number-one issue for farm groups across the country. “If we don’t have a reliable work force, we’ll be in trouble,” he said. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 55 percent to 70 percent of agriculture workers are undocumented.
Advocates of immigration reform say this year presents the best opportunity in many years for change. Public interest seems high. Voter groups wanting reform showed strength in the last national elections. The GOP is rethinking its engagement with Latino groups. President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators have called for a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws.
To build momentum for legislation, the Growers League is partnering with the Seattle-based advocacy group OneAmerica for organizing support around a broad statement of reform principles called the Washington Compact (www.washingtoncompact.com).
OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz said organizers at the state and national levels are engaging members of such groups as the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and Evangelical churches. Stolz encouraged growers to recruit people to the coalition and to personally lobby members of Congress. He said recruitment has gone well, but many more were needed. “This is one issue where there is broad consensus for change,” he said.
The Washington Compact has been endorsed by one of Washington State’s leading business advocacy groups, the Association of Washington Business.
“In line with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AWB supports the Washington State Compact’s efforts to show that business, faith, and law enforcement leaders are solidly behind policy makers who want to change our system of immigration,” wrote AWB President Don Brunell in a letter to the Growers League.
Cheryl Broetje encouraged growers to see the immigration issue in the context of how we should define our nation.
“What kind of laws does the United States want to pledge its allegiance to? Which laws are just?” she asked. “We are a nation of laws. Laws are important. We have a right to defend out borders, absolutely. But we are also a nation about truth and grace, and hospitality and welcoming of strangers, because most of us in this room, our ancestors, were once strangers here.”
Cheryl Broetje is optimistic and determined, knowing that big change can come in mysterious ways.