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Orchard Owner Has Lots to Lose

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, October 31, 1999

ICE HARBOR POOL- Just over the hill from the still waters of the Snake River, four shiny apples, two Bibles, a Psalms devotional book and a spread of papers thick enough to clean an oil spill bury Ralph Broetje's desk.

Gray weathered wood from an old barn - an indulgence to Broetje's addiction to trees - covers his walls, along with pictures of wide-eyed children from around the world and artistic interpretations of Jesus.

Broetje - known as Ralph to friends and as "Papa" to his 700 year-round employees - sits calmly in the center of the storm over the future of the four Lower Snake River dams.

Should the dams be removed to help fish, he stands to lose more than just about anyone - he and his legion of Hispanic workers, many of whom don't know the Corps of Engineers could recommend as early as December to tear out the dams that hold back the waters that make it possible for them to grow so much fruit.

"Water is life - not just for the fish but for the people," said Eva Madrigal, a longtime employee at what is Walla Walla County's largest farm company.

Today, roughly 37,000 once-dusty acres in Walla Walla and Franklin counties are covered in river-irrigated crops. Another 13,000 acres are watered by wells where the water level likely would drop if the Snake dams were breached.

"Without water, none of it continues to happen," said Broetje, 53, who three years ago knew very little about the fish that now threaten his farm. "The lives of a lot of people depend on it.

"There's too many people here to go back to the way it was 50 years ago."

Post-dam picture muddy

By the corps' count, roughly 2,500 part-time employees and 950 full-time employees worked the river-irrigated land along the Snake in 1997. "These should be viewed as approximations," said Dennis Wagner, one of the corps' study leaders, who invited people to correct the numbers at public hearings this winter. "We did not do a survey of each of the farmers and ask how many employees they have."

Without the dams, the corps reports predict multiple farm failures, dropping county tax revenue and the breakup of rural communities.

"It's not just a loss to the farmers," said Larry Shelley, Walla Walla County assessor. "It's a loss to a tremendous amount of individuals who depend on them for their livelihood. Where would those workers go?"

Shelley said Broetje's farm - with an assessed value of roughly $40 million - pays just under $600,000 a year in property taxes, making it the fifth largest taxpayer in the county. Broetje also spends about $40 million a year to make the farm run, about half of that on labor.

The largest Walla Walla County taxpayer, Boise Cascade, also runs a massive tree farm along the Snake River, though company officials said the mill would continue operation even without Snake water.

Between equipment dealers, fertilizer companies and seasonal harvesters, the circle of economic woe is expected to ripple through the farm economy, especially harming farm service dealers in Pasco.

The big picture, however, could be quite different.

"The Lower Snake River dams are not a central piece of the Northwest economy and their role in the lives of most Northwesterners is a very small one," said the environmental group Save Our Wild Salmon, in a September letter to Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

"These dams produce some electric power, support some jobs and provide benefits to some Northwesterners," the letter said. "They have also helped destroy some jobs (and) inflict costs on some Northwesterners."

Ripple effect feared

Tom Gilleese, president of the Hermiston Development Corp., an industry-seeking community group, says less Southeastern Washington farmland would hurt Oregon, too. For instance, without the 5,000 acres of potatoes grown along the Snake, the region becomes less able to meet processors' demands.

Too many production declines would make fast-growing Canadian spud farms more attractive, perhaps driving the producers - and additional jobs - north.

"That secondary effect is going to be a heck of a lot larger than the primary effect," said Porky Thomsen, a Snake River potato farmer.

The draft corps report left that effect as an unknown, because there are too many hypothetical situations to make it practical, Wagner said.

But already, bankers are skittish about investing in land that may go dry within 10 years and the cloud of uncertainty threatens property values.

Ironically, those symptoms would be roughly equivalent to what was faced by the people there before the farmers. To American Indians, the rise of river development was the end of their historic culture and their historic prosperity.

Northwest tribes now face sky-high unemployment and death rates. They are adamant about tearing down the dams to save the fish they love. One study said breaching would increase the tribal catch in the Columbia-Snake system by 29 percent in 25 years.

More study, the report said, commits the region's tribal peoples to "continued suffering, ill health and death."

Opportunity, fear in breaching

When supporting high value crops such as wine grapes, apples and cottonwood trees, the land along the Lower Snake River is worth an average of $4,500 per acre. Though some land is worth up to seven times that because of extensive trellis systems and mature high-production orchards.

When investigating the impacts of dam breaching, the corps looked at ways to provide irrigation water from a lowered river. Rebuilding existing pumps is prohibitively expensive and uncertain to work because of the vast amount of sediment that will flow down-river if the dams go.

Fixing the pumps would cost an estimated $291 million - more than the land is worth - prompting the suggestion that the region buy out the farms.

Liz Hamilton, of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, wants the dams out but doesn't believe the Northwest should let the Mid-Columbia fold.

"We spend $3 billion trying to save salmon, it seems to me that we can spend some of that money in the future helping communities," she said. "We need a leader who has a vision of modernizing the Basin and recovering salmon at the same time. ... It seems to me like there is an opportunity here."

Sierra Club spokesman Jim Baker doesn't think things will be as bad as dam defenders say. "The human species has demonstrated a practically limitless capacity for finding ways to produce electricity, to ship goods to markets and to run our economy successfully," he said.

But Broetje bristles at the suggestion that a still-undeveloped regional buyout program would make for a cushy early retirement. "That bothers me greatly," he said. "It's like the farmers are expendable, like the things we do and the food we grow is no longer necessary."

While Broetje's position finds favor with many in the Mid-Columbia, the decision will rest with a Congress that's long been envious of the low power rates the Northwest hydroelectric system affords.

Like it or not, the dams are now a national environmental issue, as evidenced by a lengthy story about them on the front page of the Sunday New York Times earlier this fall.

Despite the protests of Gorton and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., national politicians will be looking at the large-scale impact of breaching. From that perspective, the lost jobs and farms may simply be absorbed into the nation's economic abundance.

Congress may even buy it as a money-saver, nudged by the likes of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which said in a 1998 paper that hydropower turbines create "salmon mousse" at the cost of $400 million a year.

'Blessed' farm balloons

As Broetje talks about his uncertain future, workers inside the mammoth concrete warehouses next to his office pack 18,000 boxes of apples, just like they do, on average, every day.

Outside the open door to his office, the orchard's business center is busier than many town halls as a receptionist handles request after request in Spanish and English. The farm has grown into an impressive enterprise.

"There was no master plan," said Broetje, now one of the state's leading orchardists. "The Lord has really blessed us. ... It's been exciting to watch happen."

The orchard covers about 4,000 acres 30 miles east of Pasco. Rainbows of river water arc over fields of green trees on the brink of fall harvest. One stack of apple boxes - soon to hold 800 pounds of apples each - is set 10 high and as long and wide as a football field.

Only a few small patches of dust and rocks remain as a reminder of what the land once was.

From his old Lake Shasta party boat - docked for the day at the corps' Fishhook Park - Collis Young has watched Broetje's two decades of progress and has heard of the farmer's legendary humanitarian efforts. He's also followed the debate about the dams, but is so confident the dams will stay he spent the summer scouting for a home nearby where he can retire by the river.

"I really can't believe they would do it," said the deeply tanned Young, a retired Weyerhaeuser employee who saw his share of environmental battles in the Northwest timber wars of the late 1980s. "All this would be gone. ... The houseboat would be in a dry dock somewhere and I wouldn't be here anymore."

The idea for the surrounding farm came about four decades ago, when Broetje, the son of a farmer, went on a weekend fast with his church youth group to remind themselves of the world's hungry.

"I had a wild vision that someday I would have a large orchard and be able to use some of the money to help kids in India," Broetje said. "Looking back, I think it was more of a vision that God had given me.

"There is no way I had the ability to put this together unless it was meant to be."

To recognize that, Broetje labels his apples First Fruits, a reference to the biblical directive to give the first of the harvest to God.

"It's a daily reminder of what we are supposed to be about," Broetje said of his labels.

Water threatens workers, lives

Broetje bought about 400 acres off the Snake River in 1980, shifting from the Lower Yakima Valley and heading toward new apple varieties. Few others were farming along the barren rise, but with plenty of sun and good soil, his saplings just needed one other thing to grow.


"It had water from the river, which looked good at the time," he said ruefully.

In the 1980s, concern about Northwest fish was isolated and few dreamed the blossoming dam and reservoir system that watered the West would one day be threatened.

So Broetje - who says more attention should be on salmon harvest - kept buying and planting, as did a small group of large-scale farmers who are growing orchards and high-end row crops. Along the way, he found time for his passion: people.

He and his wife, Cheryl, adopted six children from India. They started the Walla Walla Christian radio station The Way and a sister station in Spanish.

They built a boarding home ranch that draws troubled teens from around the nation. "There's just a tremendous need for teen-agers to get away from the bad choices they are making," Broetje said. "The calls we get sometimes break your heart."

As Broetje's farm expanded, it became increasingly hard to draw enough workers from Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities to his rural farm. Part of the problem was so many of the women on the processing lines had young children.

So Broetje built a preschool for nearly 70 kids. Then an elementary school. Then a junior-senior high.

But employees needed something more - safe, sanitary places to live.

"We heard a lot of stories about the housing conditions these families were in and some of the problems their kids were having in town," Broetje said. "We decided we wanted to make it a real community, a place where they could really feel at home."

So in 1992 he built 121 single-family homes and apartments that rent for $275 to $400 a month.

The tidy Vista Hermosa development just off Highway 124 on the way to Fishhook Park includes a school, a gas station and a mini-mart, all built around the mission-style chapel that Broetje intended as the focal point for his community. Broetje said it's assessed at $7 million, in addition to the orchard.

Madrigal, the housing director, calls Vista Hermosa a training ground for Hispanic families, about one-third of whom buy their first homes when they leave.

More than 500 people live in the housing complex - with more on the waiting list - and most of them are largely unaware that their farm is up for grabs.

"I don't think a lot of them are aware of the threat," Madrigal said. "Most of them live day to day."

Mike Lee
Orchard Owner Has Lots to Lose
Tri-City Herald, October 31, 1999

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