If the family farm has fallen by the wayside, Limerock Orchards is a working museum piece, frozen in time.
Deanne and Richard Gonzales purchased their sprawling Paso Robles property off Peachy Canyon Road some 35 years ago. Together, they vowed to transform the land’s existing 23-acre walnut orchard into flourishing bounty. Since then, the couple has toiled, planned, schemed, fretted, and rejoiced. They’ve measured rainfall, trudged through muddy fields, and picked until their hands chafed.
In 2009, after decades of selling their precious nuts to wholesale brokers, the family decided to bring their unique buttery flavor to the local market. Together with their children, Phillip and Olivia, the Gonzales family built Limerock Orchards from the ground up, parlaying their efforts into a modern tasting room and online shop brimming with boutique walnuts, butters, and oils.
The kids may have flown away from the old homestead, (Olivia studied agribusiness and married a Modesto nut farmer while brother Phillip has become a 3-D designer), but their footsteps remain. The way Deanne sees it, Limerock Orchards has always been a team effort—an example of what can be accomplished with a bit of hard work, grit, dedication, and heart.
“Olivia has done so much of the branding and social media for Limerock. You just can’t take away what she did to help establish the business,” Deanne said. “My husband has always done the farming, and I manage the operation as well as keep up with the farm store.”
On a foggy morning, a group of 101 Wine Tour-goers explored Limerock’s certified organic orchard, where the silhouette of wide, Spanish moss-tinged branches stood out starkly against golden grasses.
Deanne was happy to point out that the moss—technically “lichen”—only grows where there is no trace of air pollution. Rattlesnakes, deer, and wild pigs are known to cut paths through the farm’s thick, adobe topsoil.
On this day, the orchard showed the first blush of spring life—green leaves emerging to meet the sun. Due to the ongoing drought, some foliage has died back in the orchard, but that’s to be expected.
Like all farmers, Deanne and Richard know that you have to roll with the punches. Planted in 1963, the trees have seen a lot of history and a lot of weather (the lowest and highest temps recorded are 2 degrees and 110 degrees, respectively). Not only has the landscape changed—prolific nut farms across Paso Robles have since transformed into vineyards—but the amount of precipitation has changed, too. It’s a common story, but crucial.
Average rainfall for the area once totaled 39 inches, but for the past four years, the Gonzales family has made do with about 14 inches of rain. The trees are completely dry farmed, so they take only what Mother Nature provides. This produces smaller nut totals with more flavor payoff.
“Not unlike wine grapes, the nuts are smaller, yet their flavor is more concentrated and delicious,” Deanne said of the compact crop. Out here, balance is everything, and each part of the farm works together in unity. Deanne pointed out how the trees have been skillfully grafted, utilizing a deep rootstock best suited to flourish in the farm’s alkaline, limestone subsoil.
If this all reminds you of wine grape growing, you’re on the right track: Like zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon, each walnut variety comes with its own backstory and flavor profile. The farm’s classic French Franquette variety are boat-shaped and date back to the early 1800s; the square Hartleys are native to England. These heirloom varieties are like edible artifacts in their own right.
“Both varietals have a higher-than-average oil content, featuring a sweet-meated creamy texture without the bitter skin,” Deanne said. “Come harvest, the hulls, which appear green all summer, will start to split and dry out.”
The nuts are usually harvested in October or November, although that, too, is up to the whims of nature. Once the time comes, the trees will be shaken by a machine, then picked by hand. Steep hillsides make the job particularly rough.
“The nuts get picked into five gallon buckets, which transfers to about 5 buckets per sack. The sacks goes to the trailer, the trailer goes to the elevator, and so on. It takes us a couple days with about a team of 20 guys,” Deanne said. “It is back-breaking work. Our team absolutely amazes me.”
Next, the nuts are trucked to the valley where they’re dried and processed into luscious oil and creamy butter.
And what is all that toil for? The hardship? The sweat? Why, the pursuit of smooth California walnut flavor, of course. There really is nothing else quite like it.
Good thing Deanne is chock-full of ways to celebrate the fruit of their efforts: Simmer fish in the oil or lightly sauté veggies. Make nocino liquer out of the green walnuts, or spread the butter on fresh-baked toast. Sprinkle the golden flesh of the nut on salads dressed with vinaigrette and Stilton cheese. Replace the oil with walnut butter in your next cake or brownie recipe for a more moist morsel.
Not only does Deanne love to share these culinary delights with visitors to the farm store, she gets excited showing locals what a tried-and-true family farm operation looks like in 2016. Just ask her about her work with the Farm Bureau, Cattlewomen, and SLO County District 1 team. For her, Limerock’s struggle is part farming, part marketing, and part education.
“As a society, we are now five generations removed from the family farm,” Deanne said. “The era where people grew up on a farm, or visited grandma’s farm over the summer, is over. I want to show the link from farm to fork. That’s still a very big deal for us.”