When Ralph and Cheryl Broetje listened to their orchard workers' concerns, two topped the list: Where will they live and who will take care of their kids?
Farmworker housing, in particular, is not a new dilemma for growers, but it's an ever increasing challenge. As good workers become harder and harder to find, the Broetjes are offering more than a good wage to attract and keep skilled workers.
In a few weeks, Broetje Orchards will open the first of its 48-unit townhomes near Prescott in Walla Walla County.
The $6.7 million project is taking shape near Vista Hermosa just off Fishhook Park Road, and it's the first phase of what could become a 112-unit complex.
In today's economy, keeping and retaining a skilled workforce is what it takes to be successful, said Jim Kuntz, Port of Walla Walla's executive director.
"Broetje Orchards sets the gold standard for providing housing for its work force," he said. "They just set a great example of what it takes to get workers committed to working for a company."
When the 2012 apple season ended, Broetje Orchards was short about 200 employees.
Still, it ended the year better than it began, thanks to a mild winter that allowed workers to pick into December -- about four weeks longer than normal.
But the weather can't always be depended on to cooperate, so Broetje Orchards is using housing as a carrot to recruit high-skilled apple workers.
"We have a huge need for agricultural labor," said Roger Bairstow, a managing board member for the company.
The family-owned and operated farm is one of the largest apple orchards in the state, with more than 6,000 acres producing about 17 varieties, including Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith and Red Delicious. They also grow some cherries.
The company is Walla Walla County's top employer, with about 1,900 full- and part-time workers growing and packing Washington's top commodity.
Statewide, the apple crop was valued at $1.83 billion in 2011.
Harvesting apples is far from an easy, entry-level job, and mechanical harvesters can't do it well.
"People have to be able to pick the apples right, for us to be able to sell them in the stores," Bairstow said. "If we want apples in this county, if we want apples in Washington state, somebody's got to pick them."
So, the Broetjes built a complex of farmworker rental units called Vista Hermosa in 1990 near their massive fruit-packing facilities.
When more of their workers seemed to be ready for home ownership, the Broetjes, through an affiliate, started the Tierra Vida community in east Pasco, offering lower-priced homes for workers and other Tri-City families. Tierra Vida, which means land and life, also has an apartment complex.
There also was a growing interest in year-round housing closer to the orchards, Bairstow said.
Currently, about 600 people live year-round in Vista Hermosa, and the waiting list is up to about 50 families.
"All we are doing is trying to provide additional year-round housing to our employees," Bairstow said.
First units coming soon
New Tradition Homes of Vancouver, Wash., is expected to finish the first eight-plex in June, after about six months of construction, Bairstow said.
The new townhomes are being built along what will become Opal Avenue, named after a new variety of bright yellow apples that Broetje hopes will compete with varieties such as Jazz and Pacific Rose.
The townhomes are being built to Built Green standards. Hot water will come from a solar hot water system created by Silk Road Solar of Kennewick.
The 72-panel system is expected to save more than 1.6 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. That's enough energy to power about 93 homes for a year, officials said.
Bairstow said they hope to see a return on the solar hot water investment in about five years. The system should save Broetje Orchards and the residents money, as well as being a part of responsibly stewarding the environment.
The six buildings of furnished townhomes will have 48 units, each with four bedrooms.
Three bedrooms and two bathrooms are upstairs, and one bedroom is downstairs along with the kitchen and living area.
One family may rent one of the 1,400-square-foot units, or it may be a group of single men.
Each unit can accommodate up to eight people. That means a maximum occupancy of 384 in the first phase.
Like with Vista Hermosa, everyone at the expansion will pay rent. At Vista Hermosa, the rent is about 23 percent of the gross pay of the lowest-paid dual income family. Bairstow said that helps pay for community needs such as maintenance.
"We want to instill a sense of ownership," he said. That's why those who live there are on a board making decisions about their community.
Site could double in units
Some Vista Hermosa residents would like to move into the new two-story townhomes, said Carmen Bernal, a housing manager for Mano a Mano, or "Hand in Hand," a seasonal farmworker housing facility used by Broetje employees and other agricultural workers since it opened in 2008.
While Broetje Orchards is starting with six buildings in the expansion, a conditional use permit from Walla Walla County would allow up to 14 townhome buildings to be built on the 30-acre site.
Two, half-size soccer fields and a community building also may be added, according to county documents.
Broetje Orchards is known for its local and international charitable efforts. Part of the Broetjes' philosophy is servant leadership, a way of leading by serving others.
In 20 years, the Vista Hermosa Foundation, created by the Broetje family, for example, has donated more than $50 million to support rural and agricultural development, education and leadership training in developing countries.
For now, the occupants of the new townhomes will be able to use the rest of Vista Hermosa's amenities, including a soccer field, computer lab, English language classes, an elementary school, a convenience store and other recreational activities.
As the Broetje community grows, it's good news for the county, said Kuntz.
Adding housing means more people living in the valley, shopping and buying products, he said.
Broetje Orchards already is the county's second largest single source of property taxes, paying just less than $1 million, Kuntz said.
Who actually will rent the townhomes hasn't yet been determined. Bairstow said they also want to be able to provide housing for seasonal workers from out of the area.
Some of the Vista Hermosa residents have lived there since it opened and some are second-generation families.
"We love this being a family community," Bairstow said.