By Molly Allen
When hop harvest takes off in the Yakima Valley, it doesn’t stop for anything.
Every September, hop farmers and their employees work around the clock, harvesting the aromatic cones that make their way into the wide array of craft beers that have become increasingly popular over the past 10 years.
For Graham Gamache, owner of Cornerstone Ranches LLC in Toppenish, the hop harvest has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve done every job on the farm, and I know it like the back of my hand,” said Gamache, whose grandfather, Amos Gamache, originally established the farm at 2131 Fort Road in 1948.
Graham purchased the farm from his father, Terry Gamache, and uncle, Michael Gamache, in 2013. He has worked on making the business his own ever since.
“It really is a lot different here now than it was in 2012 and further back from there,” he said. “I purchased the farm right when the craft beer industry was booming. And it’s been great to invite so many brewers and other guests to tour the farm. We welcome brewers from all the world here every day during harvest.”
When hop harvest begins, brewers flock to the Yakima Valley for its unmatched hop selection and to get a behind-the-scenes look at where their hops originate.
Local hop farms see visitors from breweries all over the world every fall.
But only if those brewers pay a visit to Cornerstone Ranches will they get to see one of the oldest wooden hop picking machines still in operation in the valley.
“The farm really is a cool place to visit, and you can tell it has that vintage character to it,” said Dru Ernst, owner of Dru Bru Brewery on Snoqualmie Pass.
“Graham and I established a connection through Gonzaga, our alma mater, and it’s been great to get to know him and his staff. We went down and picked up Centennial and Cashmere hops this year straight from the farm.”
Graham Gamache took over the 1,100-plus-acre farm with its original equipment still in intact, and he continues to use a lot of the same machinery for hop harvest every year.
The 1950s-era picking machine — or Fontaine — features equipment such as large cast iron sprockets, which were all locally made.
“When others started to decommission their machines, my grandfather, my dad and my uncle would collect parts,” Gamache said. “We’ve made necessary updates along the way, updated equipment, new burners for the kiln, but the bare bones structure is still good and allows us to continue producing the highest quality of products.”
The farm also utilizes one of the original hop combines that Gamache’s grandfather, father and uncle helped to develop in the 1970s.
Some of the pilot technology was tested on the farm, and that prototype helped develop the technology that Yakima Hop Combine turned into an incredibly useful machine.
One of the original nine combines that were built at the time can still be found to this day in the fields during harvest.
“Every generation has made their own improvements as time goes on,” Gamache said. “I spent 20 years driving the combine myself.”
A Cut Above the Rest
Cornerstone Ranches was one of the first hop farms in the valley — and in the U.S. — to become GLOBALG.A.P certified, earning its certification at the same time as Roy Farms in Moxee.
Because hops are considered a food product, GLOBALG.A.P established specific standards for harvest facilities.
“We’ve always been innovative and always on the cutting edge,” Gamache said.
Cornerstone Ranches prides itself on being a truly independent hop farm. With 11 different varieties of hops, the farm doesn’t align itself with any specific variety, merchant or brewer.
“We are loyal to the customers who are loyal to us,” Gamache said. “And we love to develop great relationships with them.”
When his grandfather originally started the farm, the focus was on hops and Concord grapes. Apple orchards were planted later on.
Today, Cornerstone Ranches harvests 635 acres of hops, which make their way to breweries around the world. The farm’s 61 acres of Concord grapes go to Welch’s for its popular grape juice, while the more than 425 acres of apples harvested on the farm are distributed by companies such as Washington Fruit & Produce Co., Monson Fruit Co. and Olympic Fruit.
Gamache also recently launched a hospitality service, welcoming visitors to a turn-of-the-century farmhouse right in the middle of hop country.
The home, which has been in his family for decades, has been a great addition, offering accommodation for brewers during hop selection and harvest, as well as for wine tasting weekends and other events.
Gamache always knew he wanted to spend his life on the farm. He graduated from Gonzaga University in 1997 with a degree in English Literature, then made his way back to where it all began.
“I always knew I was going to farm. I love it,” he said. “I always intended to come back, so I decided to study something that had always interested me.”
The Gamache family’s hop history in the Yakima Valley dates back to Graham’s great-great-great-grandparents, Charles and Hermaline Gamache.
The French-Canadian immigrants arrived in the Yakima Valley in November 1897 with their eight children in tow. The family settled in Moxee and Charles helped dig the Selah-Moxee Canal, bringing irrigation water to the area (which farmers still rely on today).
Graham Gamache’s work has come full circle, providing great hops and produce on a global scale, positioning Cornerstone Ranches as a well-respected farm around the world. “There really was no single grand plan, but I’m glad to be where I am on the farm today.”
To learn more about the farm, visit http://www.cornerstoneranches.com.
Originally published in Yakima Business Times