Central Coast farmers showcase food and family
Sept./Oct. 2010 California Country magazine
Stories by Kate Campbell and Steve Adler
Photos by Scott Monaco, Paolo Vescia and David LaBelle
The counties from Monterey to Ventura feature an abundance of crops and products, including walnut oil, cauliflower and avocados.
For some, California's Central Coast—stretching from Monterey County to Ventura County—means sandy beaches fringing a sweeping plain. It's a land of fable and fun. Beyond surfing and sunning, there's Hearst Castle looming above the village of San Simeon. For history buffs, California's beginnings are found at the missions and haciendas.
But, most of all, this roughly 15,000-square-mile region is home to farms and ranches that produce about a quarter of the state's total agricultural output. Ideal growing conditions mean not only abundance, but also an astonishing array of crops and products.
From winegrapes and vegetables to cut flowers and cattle, the variety produced in the region is nearly as spectacular as the landscape itself. And, for generations, the families who produce this bounty have often been at the cutting edge of agricultural innovation and culinary trendsetting.
For example, the Gonzales family in San Luis Obispo County presses their walnuts to make a buttery-rich walnut oil, while multiple generations of the Jefferson family take to the fields in Monterey County to grow a wide range of vegetables, including colored cauliflower. In Ventura County, avocado farmer David Schwabauer has turned growing the popular green fruit into an art form.
Meet these farmers and get a glimpse of what goes into putting food on millions of dinner tables. Then, let a Central Coast chef show you how to enjoy the bounty from those farms in your own home. And, if you're free the weekend of Sept. 30-Oct. 3, you'll have the opportunity to meet all these folks at the Savor the Central Coast event in San Luis Obispo County.
Family branches out with walnut oil
The Gonzaleses—Richard, left, Olivia and Deanne—continue the family's long tradition of innovative farming and ranching, adding walnut oil to their sought-after orchard and beef products.
The Gonzales Family
Limerock Orchards, San Luis Obispo County
When Olivia Gonzales' grandfather's great-great-grandfather received two Mexican land grants in the late 1700s, including one east of Hollister on California's Central Coast, he probably had no idea that more than 200 years later his descendants would be producing an unusual agricultural product—walnut oil.
Olivia and her parents Richard and Deanne Gonzales create what is turning into a successful niche market through their Paso Robles tasting room, local restaurants and Internet sales (www.limerockorchards.com).
After decades of selling their walnuts to a processor, the transformation to walnut oil began a few years ago after Richard attended a California Farm Bureau meeting where the speakers stressed the importance of farmers diversifying in order to stay in business.
Richard came back from that meeting and discussed with Deanne and Olivia, as well as son Phillip, the possibility of opening a farm stand at their Limerock Orchards on Vineyard Drive, a route frequented by tourists visiting Paso Robles wineries. Once they started the complex permit process, they discovered it was no more difficult to get a license for a wine-tasting room than for a farm stand.
"We said to ourselves, 'We aren't going to do this twice,' so we applied for and received a permit for a tasting room," Richard said.
Although the Gonzales family has a cattle ranch and 30 acres of walnuts, they didn't have a vineyard. But they formed a partnership with winegrape growers Mike and Margene Mooney of nearby Creston. As a result, visitors to the tasting room are able to sample and purchase wines that carry the Chateau Margene at Limerock Orchards label.
What does all that have to do with walnut oil?
For one thing, it created the needed first marketing outlet for the product. Since its introduction at the tasting room a year ago, sales of Limerock Orchards walnut oil have grown steadily and generated increasing interest by area chefs who like to incorporate local agricultural products into their menus.
"I hope this really takes off because if it keeps me in farming, that's what I want to be doing," Richard said. "My heart is into farming."
Olivia concurs. She recalls several customers who have come into the tasting room for the wine, yet have expressed reluctance to sample the oil because they weren't necessarily fond of nuts.
"I tell them to just give it a try. When they taste that smooth and buttery flavor, they are hooked," she said.
Walnut oil and wine aren't the only products at Limerock Orchards. Visitors to the tasting room will also find a variety of candied and chocolate-covered walnuts.
The Gonzaleses' success story is truly a family affair. Deanne designed the tasting room, Richard oversaw its construction and Olivia designed the walnut oil's label and packaging. Phillip, who is pursuing a career as a 3-D artist in Irvine, returns to the farm whenever he can to help out.
Family members agree that it's easy to get behind a product they believe in.
As Olivia explains it, walnuts are considered a "superfood." They have the highest concentration of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids of any nut, along with a number of anti-aging characteristics—and all of these benefits carry into the oil.
Walnut oil can be used in place of vegetable oil or olive oil in salads, dips and baking, but Olivia says one of her favorite uses is as a secret ingredient in popcorn.
"Just get a stovetop pot and pop the kernels in the walnut oil, which has a very nice, toasty flavor," she said, adding, "You will have to try it to see what I mean."
Vegetable crop with colors that pop
Benny Jefferson, seated, and son Martin say putting the color into cauliflower isn't as easy as it may look. It takes careful planning, precision harvesting and unrelenting attention to food safety standards.
Benny and Martin Jefferson
Martin Jefferson & Sons, Monterey County
Monterey County vegetable grower Benny Jefferson has a supermarket produce section at his fingertips. He and his farming family grow a dizzying array of vegetables—from artichokes and broccoli to garlic, beans and lettuce—more than 20 crops in all.
"We've always got something going to market," Jefferson said. "And we're always looking to provide something new in the produce section."
That something new is appearing in upscale restaurants and select supermarkets. It's an old-fashioned vegetable with a decidedly colorful complexion. It's cauliflower, but not the most-familiar white variety. These members of the brassica family (think broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbage) are the hip-hop version of cauliflower—yellow "cheddar heads," "green goddess" and "purple passion"—that pop with color and flavor.
Colored cauliflower varieties also provide benefits beyond those offered by the already nutritious white variety. For example, cheddar head cauliflower contains 25 times more vitamin A than white. Sometimes called broccoflower, the green goddess variety the Jeffersons grow is loaded with sulforaphane, an anti-cancer compound released when cauliflower is chopped or chewed.
The real show stealer, however, is purple passion, which contains the antioxidant group anthocyanin that's also found in red wine. This cauliflower variety has a sweet, peppery taste that Jefferson said is great right out of the field.
"We've been growing cauliflower for years so adding these colorful varieties didn't seem like a big challenge," he said.
But, as is often the case with things that sound easy, laying out a cauliflower field to simultaneously produce and harvest four different colored varieties of the chunky heads turned out to be more difficult than it seemed at first.
"Look at these fields," said Benny's son, Martin Jefferson, sweeping his arm toward tidy acres of the row crops. "It all looks like the same thing—cauliflower.
"But in reality we have four separate varieties that need to be treated differently. The heads of one color grow on a different timeline than the color growing in the next rows. Laying out the beds for simultaneous harvest is complicated."
Harvest crews are specially trained to cut and pack the new varieties, setting the heads into coded boxes depending on market requirements. One thing that is the same with this showy new crop, however, is the adherence to strict food safety procedures for all vegetable crops.
Helping ensure the quality and safety of food produced by Martin Jefferson & Sons is April England-Mackie's main job as the farming operation's food safety manager.
"We follow the guidelines for the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement for all of our products," she explains, "whether the crop is leafy or not. We pride ourselves in following those standards throughout our growing system."
That means regular testing of irrigation water, ongoing training of harvest crews, field sanitation equipment, meticulous recordkeeping and daily field assessments.
"I know I've done my job in protecting consumers when I've been involved in every aspect of food safety from preparing the fields to harvesting the crop," England-Mackie said. "The thing I'm most passionate about is creating changes that benefit everyone—vegetable growers, workers and consumers."
With more than five generations of farming under their belts, the descendants of founder Martin Jefferson have a long history of putting vegetables on America's dinner tables. Benny Jefferson said that success comes from a commitment to quality, a willingness to take risks and an unwavering emphasis on food safety.
The art of growing avocados
Avocado grower David Schwabauer says this California fruit is at its best when it yields slightly to a gentle squeeze. That means it's ripe and ready to use in favorite recipes, such as his family's avocado citrus salad.
Leavens Ranches, Ventura County
Walking his family's sun-dappled avocado groves, Ventura County grower David Schwabauer said, "This is a great place to think and unwind and it's a pleasure we share as a family. After a long day, we like to spend time in the groves and feel the soft soil underfoot, the crunch of leaves as we walk."
Avocado trees, which in California are harvested from spring through fall, are always changing, he said. The fruit for two crops—this year's and next—hangs from the branches. Deciding which fruit is ripe and ready for market takes the eye of skilled harvest crews.
They work quickly to fill bin after bin with the pebbly skinned fruit that is then taken to the packinghouse, Schwabauer said. Once there it's sized, boxed and shipped to markets across the United States and the world, timed to arrive at the ideal moment.
"The other day I was in the groves with the harvesters and the bins of fruit were so beautiful—uniform in size and color—that I just had to stop and take photos," he said. "It's a sight I always enjoy and it's one I'm proud to share."
Like many other California avocado growers, Schwabauer produces the popular Hass variety, which is native to Central America, but there are hundreds of varieties of avocados. He said as with any other crop, producing the best Hass avocado requires the essentials—water, soil, sun and good trees—but perfection requires something extra.
He calls it a constant attention to the needs of the trees. With hundreds of acres to evaluate each day, Schwabauer joins the state's estimated 6,000 avocado farmers who are devoted to the art of coaxing fruit from about 60,000 acres of trees.
Schwabauer is quick to point out, however, that producing a crop from these trees can be challenging. Besides uncertainties about water for the crop, there are also worries about invasive pests, wildfires and punishing winds. Added to that are competition from international growers and ongoing economic pressures.
"Although my family has been farming in Ventura County for generations, we've only been growing avocados for about 50 years," said Schwabauer, whose family also produces lemons and winegrapes. "We saw it as a way to diversify the foods we offer to consumers, but, in the early years, consumption wasn't even close to what it is today."
He credits a growing Hispanic population and the increased popularity of Mexican dishes for a steady rise in sales.
"As people become more familiar with avocados, demand keeps going up," he said. "At the same time, a greater range of recipes and dishes is being offered."
He said avocado marketing experts see the day when avocado sales will overtake the ever-popular banana and earn a spot as a staple of the American diet, but adds in jest that it might be awhile before people are slicing avocado onto their cornflakes.
Yet Schwabauer said he thinks there isn't a more beautiful crop or a more nutritious fruit. Avocados provide nearly 20 essential nutrients, including fiber, potassium, and E and B vitamins.
"Consumers tell us they want avocados that are buttery, creamy, smooth, nutty—absolutely delicious," Schwabauer said, and laughed at such a tall order. "That's the standard all of us California avocado growers strive to achieve."
David Schwabauer's family has been farming in Ventura County for generations. Like many other California avocado growers, he produces the popular Hass variety—known for its rich, buttery flavor. He shares three of his family's favorite avocado recipes.
Savor the Central Coast
Kate Campbell and Steve Adler are reporters for California Country. They can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.