Building ‘true wealth'
By GAYDA HOLLNAGEL Of the Tribune staff
Cheryl and Ralph Broetje grow a lot more than apples and cherries in their 4,000-acre orchard in Washington state.
The Broetjes, who employ 700 to 800 permanent workers and some 1,200 seasonal employees in their First Fruits of Washington business, help the people they hire grow as individuals and families.
"We're just trying to be faithful to the things we have in front of us," Cheryl Broetje said Thursday during a morning presentation to Wisconsin Farmers Union members and Viterbo University students.
The talk was among three presentations by Broetje whose visit to La Crosse was sponsored by Viterbo University. The talks are part of the university's ongoing programs on servant leadership as a tool in business and other professions.
The Broetjes, who provide housing, education and a variety of social programs for their workers, including an on-site day care for children of working moms, exemplify what it means to be servant leaders, said Tom Thibodeau of Viterbo's religious studies department.
"Cheryl Broetje speaks from the heart, not about what she wants to do, but about what she does, with humility, determination and grace," Thibodeau said.
The Broetjes' workers are primarily Hispanic and have come north from Mexico seeking work, Broetje said.
They come with little hope and many problems, which she and her husband have tried to address by committing some of the profits from their business to creating a better life for their workers and the workers' families. As a result, the Broetjes have a high retention rate for workers, many of whom have been with them since the business began.
The couple started out growing cherries about 35 years ago and then switched to apples, Broetje said. After nearly going broke in the early 1980s, they started fresh and as their business improved they dedicated more and more of their profits into helping their workers. In the early 1990s, the couple took out a $5.25 million loan and built 121 single family homes and a number of apartments to house their year-around employees. The workers rent the units for a fraction of the market value and today 650 people live in the homes, including 270 children. They also subsidize a day care center that has 90 children enrolled.
The on-site development also includes a chapel and a gymnasium and multiple programs for children and youth.
The couple also invested in continuing education opportunities for employees and have helped them to become preschool staff, housing managers, social service workers and agribusiness managers.
The programs are run through several other for-profit and non-profit businesses, including the Jubilee Youth Ranch for troubled youth, the Broetje Foundation, and the Center for Sharing, Broetje said. The Center for Sharing includes a Servant Leadership School to train people in the art of leadership and helps them to develop programs for underserved people.
Broetje said the couple also has gone back to growing cherries in a modest way, with proceeds from their 50-acre crop going to support a variety of mission projects around the world. The cherry crop produced $700,000 this year after expenses, she said.
Broetje speaks about living life from the "inside out" as a path to servant leadership.
"It's doing what we do for love and doing it together, not for money," she said, adding that it is about finding people's individual gifts and helping to develop those gifts. "This is the way to build on our own true wealth."
Story originally printed in the La Crosse Tribune or online at http://www.lacrossetribune.com
All stories copyright 2000 - 2005 La Crosse Tribune and other attributed sources.