Many folks who grow up on a farm can’t wait to move away. Others, like Graham Gamache, couldn’t wait to get back.
The owner of Cornerstone Ranches in Toppenish, Wash., went off to college in the early 1990s to study English literature. But his heart remained at the family hops and apple farm, which his grandfather started in 1948.
“I spent my childhood working on the farm and I always knew I would come back,” said Gamache, 44, who purchased Cornerstone Ranches — formerly Amos Gamache Farms — from his father and uncle in 2013. “There was never a doubt in my mind that I’d be running this place someday.”
Gamache started working in the hops fields at age 12, and he can’t imagine himself ever doing anything else. Farming is, and always has been, his lifeblood.
“I like the tactical nature of it; that you can hold the finished products in your hands,” the Gonzaga University graduate said. “You put so much time and work into the dirt and then you end up with all of this artistry. You can literally see the fruits of your labor.”
Cornerstone Ranches encompasses 1,100 acres in the lower Yakima Valley, producing mostly hops and apples. The company also grows juice grapes for Welch’s, but in a limited capacity.
Gamache employs between 70 and 100 people year-round and increases staffing to about 250 during the fall hops harvest. But factors such as rising labor costs make it more difficult every year to retain good help.
“The cost of labor has skyrocketed over the past couple of years, and it is becoming more of a threat every time the rates go up,” Gamache said, referring to Washington’s highest-in-the-nation minimum wage of $12 per hour.
The 2019 rate for H-2A visa guestworkers is also among the highest in the nation at $15.03 per hour, compared to $14.12 a year ago. He added that with the H-2A rate as high as it is, he doesn’t even bother offering the state minimum wage to prospective employees. He has to pay what the market will bear because other farms are likely to pay more than the minimum.
“We just have to be more efficient and continue to create a positive work environment for our employees,” Gamache said. “Keeping our people happy is one of the keys to our survival right now.”
One employee, Jorge Cortez, has been with Cornerstone Ranches since 1980 and is now a manager of hops production. Another longtime employee, Javier Ramos, is the manager of apple production and has been working for the Gamache family since 1985.
Graham Gamache said he takes a lot of pride in helping his employees create a livelihood, treating them more like business partners.
He even took the time to learn Spanish, which has helped him form an even deeper bond with his team members.
He says it’s the least he can do for the people who have committed themselves to helping Cornerstone Ranches be successful for so many years.
“Helping other human beings gives me a great sense of pride,” Gamache said. “To me, making other people’s lives whole is the essence of leadership. I take that very seriously.”
Developing lasting relationships with his staff and other local farmers will always provide a reason for Gamache to go to work every day. But the real reason he enjoys farming is that he gets his hands dirty.
“Honestly, I’m enjoying the renaissance nature of being a farmer,” he said. “Running a business presents a lot of different challenges, but I get to have my boots in the mud every day, and that’s what I like the most.”