by Suzanne Broetje, Board Chair, Broetje Family Trust
Joe Shelton was my mom’s youngest brother. He and his twin brother, Jeff, were just six years older than me, and I can remember them taking delight in tormenting me and my little sister as they chased us around the farm — just as you would expect any adoring uncles to do. Joe loved people, he loved family, and he loved to be outdoors. He raised his four children on the farm with us, and we all knew it was a unique privilege to be there together, as one large, extended family.
Less than one percent of the US population lives on farms today. Faced with all sorts of challenges — including the unpredictability of weather, the diverse demands of each season, the fluctuating circumstances of the market and the labor force — you have to really dig deep and love this work to stay in it. There’s a beauty to farming that few people understand today. Joe worked side-by-side with my dad each day, from sunup to sundown, because it was their call. The life lessons we all learned from growing up there are immeasurable, instilling in us a great resilience, respect, and resolve to stand in hard places when asked to do so.
Starting as a teenager, Joe worked in our orchards, picking cherries and learning every aspect of farming. As he developed his knowledge and expertise, he worked his way up to lead manager for Broetje Orchards. Over the years, he supervised and trained up thousands of employees to care for the land and the trees, and to care for each other. He served with humility and joy, and he held a deep respect for the land and all those who worked there.
While farming is a beautiful, essential, and divine vocation, isolation and a stoic work ethic too often take their toll. Last Spring, we lost Joe at the age of 57, and there are no words to describe the sudden loss that reverberated throughout our community. A memorial now stands in his honor on the farm, calling us all to stand together, remember, and ensure that Joe’s life and legacy continue to be a light for others.
We gathered earlier this year as a family to reflect on Joe’s life. We honored his devotion to hard work, his love for nature, and his desire to see everyone welcomed and respected, no matter where they come from or what language they speak. We decided that one good thing we could do is create the Joe D. Shelton Memorial Award to honor his love for the land and people. This award is announced on Joe’s birthday, May 12, as a celebration of his life. Each year, we commit to identifying organizations that exemplify Joe’s vision and values as a servant leader, giving special focus to the health and wellbeing of agricultural and Native communities.
The 2021 Award
During the first year of this award, we focus on suicide prevention. There is still great stigma around mental health in our country. Suicide among farmers is 1.5 times higher than the national average in the U.S., and has been on the rise in recent years. Native communities also experience higher rates of suicide compared to all other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. Complex and interrelated factors contribute to increased risk, requiring greater awareness, access to resources, and community support.
In that vein, we are pleased to announce the first recipients of the Joe D. Shelton Memorial Award:
Washington State University Extension, Agricultural Suicide Prevention Program. This program seeks to be a resource to stressed and isolated farming communities in our state. It provides community-based education to combat the stigma of behavioral health, including Question Persuade Refer (QPR) trainings and Mental Health First Aid. They distribute materials in English and Spanish through trade shows, conferences, County Fairs and other events, providing resources for self-screening and access to suicide prevention hotlines; and they build networks with other organizations serving agricultural workers and their families.
Safe Haven for Alaska’s Kids, Gambell, Alaska. Joe’s youngest son, Keith Shelton, is a teacher and resident of Gambell, a small village located on the northwest cape of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Responding to the loss of his father, as well as a number of youth who have recently died by suicide in his village, Keith has identified his own personal call to serve. Partnering with the local community, this new nonprofit will seek to be a safe space for youth; a place to go when they need support, a place to connect, play games, learn new skills, find belonging and purpose, and know that they are not alone.
Visit the Joe D. Shelton Memorial Award page for more information about this award and Joe’s legacy.