Over the Hill

Will Paso Robles' grapevines go the way of its almond orchards?

Phil Dirkx
Phil Dirkx

I can still see a few of their remaining skeletons.

They stand in rows on some hills overlooking Paso Robles. They are almond trees, dead, or almost dead. The North County at one time had almost as many acres of almond trees as it now has of grapevines.

The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance reported that North County vineyards now cover more than 32,000 acres. Eighty or so years ago, the North County’s almond orchards probably covered 25,000 acres.

I found that almond-acreage figure in an article by the late Bill Gerst of Adelaide. It appears in The Pioneer Pages, Volume VII, 2001, published by the Paso Robles Area Pioneer Museum.

Gerst’s grandfather, Michael Gerst, homesteaded west of Paso Robles in the 1880s. In 1903 he entered almonds from his trees in the St. Louis Exposition. They won a blue ribbon and letter of commendation.

Paso Robles almond trees usually blossom around Washington’s Birthday, but I didn’t notice them this year. Maybe they’ve become less visible. Or maybe I’m getting forgetful. Or maybe they’d lost their petals before I remembered them.

But that made me think of some other formerly prominent North County agricultural products, such as barley, wheat and beef cattle. They and the almonds have all been eclipsed by grapes and wine.

Once, our almond orchards were nationally advertised as investments. Gerst reproduced a full-page ad from a 1919 Sunset Magazine. Its headline said, “ALMONDS, $2500 to $3000 a Year From 10 Acres.”

It also said “Paso Robles, Cream of California’s Almond District,” and “We Plant and Care for Trees Harvest Crops,” It also said, “$25 a Month Is All You Need to Invest. You pay only half the price in cash. Your crops pay the balance.”

When Mamie and I moved back to Paso Robles in 1962, the California Almond Orchards processing plant in Paso Robles was still going strong at Fourth and Spring streets. Now there’s just bare ground and a for-sale sign. The almond industry moved to the San Joaquin Valley, where the land is flat and irrigation water used to be plentiful.

As for wheat and barley, they aren’t terribly profitable in this climate because the fields must lie fallow every other year. Many of the North County’s former grain fields are now irrigated vineyards.

The North County has also become less hospitable for beef cattle. The Templeton Livestock Market closed last October to become a housing tract. The Bryan Meat Co. slaughterhouse on River Road in Paso Robles closed many years ago.

Will the North County’s wineries and vineyards also fade away someday? They might if we continue our present rate of pumping from our Paso Robles groundwater basin. Nature can’t refill it that fast.