Updated: Feb 6
CLS Farms is a fifth-generation hop farm in Yakima, WA. Like many other families in the hop farming industry, the Desmarais family moved from Quebec to Minnesota and finally settled in Yakima. Today, the farm grows over 25 varieties across several sub-growing regions in the Yakima Valley including the Wenas, Moxee, and Lower Yakima Valleys.
Time of Expansion
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Canadian immigrants from Quebec traveled to Minnesota for more opportunities. Sophia and Israel Desmarais, the first of the Demarais family to enter the United States, were born in Quebec and married in 1865 before moving to Crookston, MN. At the time, the Red River Valley offered fertile land for farming along with mining opportunities, incentivizing Sophia and Israel to make the journey southwest.
However, in 1900, the family relocated to the Yakima Valley. The Desmarais family can be traced to one of Sophia and Israel’s sons, George E. Desmarais. Soon after George turned 20, the family decided to venture to Yakima. In 1905, he married his wife, Amabiles Crevier, and continued to live in the Yakima Valley.
The government incentivized immigrants and settlers to move out West through land discounts or providing free accommodations through various programs. In 1900, George purchased 13 acres of sagebrush land in what is now Moxee, WA, and began farming. That number grew to 120 acres, and so on. Today, CLS Farms has expanded to over 2,300 acres.
Though they started off as farmers, they did not start off as hop growers. They grew cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, and corn to start. But these lower-valued crops would not suffice, so George turned to another crop, hops. Known as the “cash crop” at the time, he decided to try it out.
As one of the first hop growers in the Yakima Valley, George and Amabiles had little knowledge of best-growing practices. The dominant growing region remained on the West side of Washington state and in other areas, but it was fairly new in the Yakima Valley. With the high cost of materials, like poles and wires, and the intense labor needed, hop farming created high barriers to entry for many individuals.
The first few years were marked by failure, with a hop trellis falling and nearly destroying the crop, but after some time, George gained the knowledge and skills needed for a successful growing year.
Despite those laborious first few harvests, George became one of the largest hop growers in the Yakima Valley. His brother Louis Desmarais had also moved out West and began farming hops and fruit on 10 acres near what is now the Nob Hill area. Some have said George was the most influential grower at the time and helped cultivate the hop industry altogether.
He was known for helping other growers start their farms. Those in the industry often compared him to a bank because of his financial generosity in providing new growers with loans. He and his wife also had nine daughters and three sons, helping each child’s family start their own farm as well.
The Second Generation
One of those sons, George S. (Steve) Desmarais (Eric Desmarais’ grandfather), followed suit with his father. Steve started his farm at a young age. As he gained skills and acquired more land, he became more successful. He and his wife had four children: George L. (Lee), Marc, Denise (H. Rich Van Horn), and Ray. Once again, when his children reached an age when they could start farming on their own, Steve set them up with land and jumpstarted their farms.
At the time, Steve had two picking machines. His children could farm their land and then use the machines when needed. Together, Steve and his children – including son-in-law Rich Van Horn – owned and operated almost 1,100 acres of hops in Moxee, WA, during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Steve was known as the collector. Struggling farms turned to Steve for investment, and he ultimately purchased those farms once the growers retired. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hop industry saw some success. But in the mid-1980s, the growers saw the industry turn tides and with one of the major hop dealers declaring bankruptcy, the industry experienced a swift change.
During this time, many farms turned off their machines permanently. For years, the ‘80s proved difficult for farmers and many thought the once-cash crop success was over. Farms didn’t expand as aggressively as they did in the past.
In the late 1980s, Anheuser-Busch began contracting directly with growers, giving them an additional sales channel rather than selling strictly through the dealers. Around the same time, Sierra Nevada Brewing began introducing a relatively unpopular beer style at the time: craft beer. It produced its iconic Pale Ale, providing beer consumers with a more hoppy brew famously made with Cascade hops.
As Lee, Marc, Rich, and Steve continued to grow hops, others continued to leave the industry. In the 1990s, Lee’s son, Eric Desmarais, began working for the farm. After graduating from Washington State University in 1992 with a degree in agricultural economics, he returned to the business as a fourth-generation grower.
The first two generations saw great success in the industry, while the third generation experienced difficulty. The hop industry is extremely cyclical. There are times of great success, but extremely low lows. When Eric entered the business full-time, it was in a downturn.
A New Era
After working for a few years and meeting his wife, Shelley, the two purchased their first 100 acres in East Moxee in 1996. Years later, they decided to purchase the farm from Lee, and in 2001, Eric and Shelley took over what was known as GLD Farms (George Lee Desmarais Farms). At that moment, CLS Farms was created. The farm is named after Claire, Lauren, and Shelley Desmarais – two of their daughters. Vivienne Desmarais, their third daughter, was born in 2010, almost a decade after they named the farm.
Though much of the industry stagnated from 1997-2005, the beginnings of the great craft beer boom were noticeable. Bolstered by a vast home brewing community, the rise and success of Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, and more large craft brewers contracting direct, the boom helped pull the hop industry out of its deep slump.
By the mid-2000s, CLS Farms had become one of the largest Centennial growers in the market as well as an adopter of proprietary varieties. In 2010, CLS Farms brought its first proprietary variety to market: El Dorado. The list of varietals in demand changed as more brewers sought aroma-forward hops versus alpha varieties.
Now, CLS Farms grows over 25 varieties, including its own three proprietary varieties El Dorado and Zappa® as well as other public and proprietary varieties. It also owns an organic soft fruit farm in Parker, WA, growing peaches, pears, apricots, cherries, apples, plums, and nectarines.
CLS Farms is built on over a hundred years of family farming. Much of the hop industry is the same way, with many of the farms still run by family members. And not only is CLS Farms owned by a family but it’s also operated in the same way. Many of the employees have either worked on the farm for over 10 years with their families or have some form of a familial connection.
The hop industry runs deep in the Yakima Valley. You’ll read French last names on road signs when driving in Moxee. This last year, CLS Farms, Marc Desmarais Farms, and Van Horn Farms all brewed a family fresh hop beer with Single Hill Brewing that featured hops from each farm named Moxee Milieu. The brew day consisted of visiting each farm with three generations present.
As an independent and family-oriented farm, the Desmarais family runs deep in the Yakima Valley with multiple generations continuing the legacy of hop growing.
Claire Desmarais is a sales and marketing manager for CLS Farms. She can be reached at email@example.com for more information.