- Author: Mark Battany
Few people today are aware of the history of the UC Agricultural Experiment Station at Paso Robles over a century ago. The information that it produced regarding the potential of dry farmed fruit crops in the area has renewed relevance today as the limits of groundwater supplies are approached in many parts of the Central Coast.
The passage of the Hatch Act by Congress in 1887 provided funding to establish and operate agricultural experiment stations. Later that same year, three new experiment stations were created in California, located in the Sierra Foothills, the San Joaquin Valley, and the South Coast Range in Paso Robles. A fourth followed later at Pomona. These were operated as sub-stations to the main experiment station at Berkeley.
At this time the agricultural activities in the South Coast Range area were undergoing rapid transformation. Dry farmed wheat and cattle had been the main agricultural products since the arrival of the early Spanish settlers, but a new influx of settlers had visions of farming diverse orchard and vine crops. Some of the rationale for these new crops came from reports that the region had sufficient rainfall as to make irrigation unnecessary; these claims may have originated with the same promoters who were dividing up the large ranch tracts to be sold as smaller farming parcels to the new arrivals. An article in the Nov. 10, 1888 Pacific Rural Press newspaper summed up the general optimism very well: "Since the subdivision of the large grants in this vicinity a new era has dawned, and this region is destined to spring into prominence as a fruit-growing district within a very few years."
Given this situation, the new Experiment Station had as its main purpose the evaluation of a very wide range of orchard and vine crops, to help determine what would be most suitable for farming in the area. The station was established on 20 acres provided by a local landowner, 3/4 mile east of Paso Robles, at a site elevated 80 ft. above the Salinas River. Only one obvious trace of the station remains today, the name of the road that led to it: Experimental Station. The exact location of the station remains uncertain, but it lay north of its namesake road and likely a short distance west of the current Buena Vista Drive, an area now fully occupied by homes.
The station was intended to be a long-term installation, and at its inception was supported with considerable enthusiasm by area residents, who raised money to help build it. The planting of a wide variety of crops was the first order of business, from cherries to figs to nectarines to over 100 varieties of grapes. A hand-dug well, 4 ft. in diameter and 105 ft. deep, provided limited water to help get crops established, and was itself an object of much interest as little exploration of groundwater had occurred previously in that area.
Alas, the fate of the orchard crops at the station largely mirrored the performance of these same crops in the farmers' fields; the combined ravages of drought, hard pan soil and frequent frost led to large losses and very poor productivity. An exception to this was the relatively good performance of wine grapes, and prior to 1900 many were predicting that this would be the crop of the future for the region.
Documentation by station staff of the poor suitability of the region for fruit tree production led to much discontent amongst area farmers, who were tired of "negative information" about the region being disseminated by the station. Local support dwindled, and Hatch Act funding by itself was not sufficient to keep the station operating; thus it was closed and dismantled in 1902.
At its brief peak, the station was reported to have over 150 varieties of grapes planted, mostly wine grapes. Cuttings likely found their way onto area farms at that time to propagate new vineyards and their progeny may very well still exist today, even if the source has long been forgotten.
This early chapter in the agricultural history of the region is important to appreciate today for one simple reason: these early farmers didn't have access to water for irrigation. The summary 1902 report written by the University paints a vivid picture of the struggles of these farmers and their many failures. Given our current concerns about the long-term reliability of our groundwater supplies throughout the region, this report provides an idea of what farming would be like without reliable water for irrigation.
The following UC publication from 1902 summarizes many years of observations of attempts to grow fruit crops in the region:
Beginning on page 27 of the above document the authors describe observations made at a large number of farms in the region that were attempting to grow orchard and vine crops.