Coffee from California? Sip happens!
California’s central and southern coasts are best known for their abundant berry, avocado, and citrus production, but Good Land Organics owner Jay Ruskey would like to add coffee to the list. What began as a small test crop over 20 years ago has blossomed into a full-fledged coffee growing, processing, and retail operation today.
If you’re surprised that coffee grows in California, you’re not alone. We recently met the Good Land Organics team at their picturesque farm just north of Santa Barbara in Goleta, California to see what the buzz is about. There they grow avocados, a variety of subtropical fruits, finger limes, and of course, coffee. Obviously, our tour started with a cup (or three) of their famous brew.
On the Fringe of the Bean Belt
Coffee has always been grown in what’s known as the “Bean Belt” located along the equatorial zone between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. But Mark Gaskell, PhD, a California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, wondered if certain microclimates within the state of California could produce quality coffee beans. So in 2002, Gaskell gave Ruskey 40 coffee plants from Costa Rican seed. Ruskey, who had previously collaborated on plant trials with tropical fruits on his farm, planted the coffee among his avocado trees. Co-planting in this way allowed the coffee plants and avocado trees to share nutrients and water, always a precious resource in the state.
Since coffee plants take about four years to mature, and an additional two years beyond that to produce a viable crop, Gaskell and Ruskey’s experiment required patience. They soon realized that coffee growing required not only patience, but a specialized approach. Over the next decade they spent time and capital gaining expertise and the proper equipment to ensure that the crops both yielded sweet coffee cherries (the red berry of the coffee plant), and that they were processed in a way that made the best tasting coffee possible.
Thanks to Ruskey’s many years growing other tropical and subtropical crops on his farm, he was able to apply that knowledge to growing coffee that is not only high quality, but uniquely Californian.
“Most people are shocked when they learn that coffee is being successfully grown in California. However, our unique climate, unique cultivation, and unique process all create a uniquely delicious coffee experience. It’s important to note that the coffee plant is grown differently in California than anywhere else in the world. First and foremost, the coffee fruit takes 10 to 12 months to mature — twice as long as mass-market coffee. California’s long summers and short winters make the coffee fruit some of the sweetest in the world, replicating high mountain-grown coffees in the tropics. Second, like all fruit tree crops in California, coffee is grown with precision irrigation to ensure it thrives, whereas most of the world’s coffee relies on sometimes predictable seasonal rains,” said Ruskey.
At Good Land Organics, they utilize what’s known as a layered agricultural system, which leverages the benefits of integrating different crops together on their extremely hilly terrain. According to Mark Szczerba, Chief Operating Officer, “We grow in a layered system…to provide resiliency to our agriculture. Rather than growing one particular crop in one particular location, we actually try to maximize every square foot. So we will use an avocado tree with either passion fruit or dragon fruit. And that will be bordering one of our other crops, such as a finger lime or coffee. So we’re able to maximize the location through this multitude of crops that we’re growing.”
According to Griffin Hall, Director of Operations at Good Land Organics, the Santa Barbara region is particularly suited to not only avocado and subtropical fruits, but also to coffee. “We are well adapted to grow subtropical crops because we have a very nice microclimate that is not too hot, not too cold, and we have healthy soil. California coffee is well outside of the traditional coffee growing Bean Belt, but it does really well in between rows of avocados.”
This layered agricultural system, especially when it came to coffee, took years of trial and error to perfect. Ruskey began sharing his coffee-growing knowledge, and coffee plants, with other farmers in Southern California, especially those looking to diversify their crops. Realizing the potential for a California coffee industry, Ruskey co-founded FRINJ Coffee in 2017, the name being a nod to the fact that California is on the fringe of traditional producing regions. Ruskey sought out co-founders who could expand on his experience and was joined by Andy Mullins who came with expertise in business development; Juan Medrano, PhD, a plant breeding scientist; and Lindsey Mesta, a coffee quality control expert.
Coffee as Craft
The California coffee movement is rapidly expanding. Today, FRINJ supports more than 70 farmers who are growing coffee in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Diego counties. Musician Jason Mraz, who has a farm in San Diego County, is among them. Together, California farmers have planted over 100,000 coffee plants. Ruskey’s commitment to organic and sustainable growing practices is also a big part of the FRINJ coffee program.
“Our coffee and fruit trees are Certified Organic and are leading a pathway toward regenerative farming practices for our farmers that are critical to an evolving food supply. Our pioneering work in layered agricultural systems has enabled us to utilize more resources while at the same time enhancing the quality of the cup,” says Ruskey.
California coffee is a growing industry, however it’s not even close to being able to match what is produced on a global scale. But what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Head Coffee Roaster, Paige Gesualdo, who recently completed the prestigious Q Grader certification process (similar to a sommelier in the wine world) is passionate about the unique coffee program at FRINJ. She wants people to be able to experience the flavor of the bean, not just the roast.
“I want somebody to understand that this is a fruit. So much of our beans have floral notes and fruity notes and sometimes nutty notes. In [traditional] roasting, you bring out those nuts and sugars as the chemistry process of adding heat to the bean occurs. However, with our quality of bean, I want to show you what we have. I don’t want to show you my talent for roasting or lack thereof…I want to show you the fruit forward flavor,” said Gesualdo.
Ruskey envisions California coffee as being another “craft” product, much like craft beer, or fine wine. He remarked, “California is known for its wine and beer, and coffee has found a great home in this craft community. We produce some of the finest coffees in the world.”
Like California’s best wines, FRINJ coffee isn’t cheap. 7.5 ounces of Mraz Family Farm’s Geisha coffee will set you back $125. With tasting notes of “berry, apricot, and jasmine,” the Geisha variety is the rarest of all FRINJ coffees. Comparatively, a 5 ounce bag of Good Land Organics’ Bourbon & Pacas varietal costs $50 and has tasting notes of “brown sugar, cocoa powder, and tropical fruit.” Each 5 ounce bag will yield 8-10 cups of coffee, depending on the strength of the brew (about $5 – $6 per cup).
Rusky wants people to understand that the FRINJ model for coffee farming and production is vastly different from the large commodity growers in other parts of the world. “What makes us unique is our farmer first model. Our whole systems solution gives growers the tools they need to flourish in the California-grown coffee market. We work with each farmer to assess their land, and recommend plant materials and infrastructure while consulting on culivatiation, sustainability, culture, research, and post-harvest services to bring the product to market. Globally, nearly 61 percent of producers sell their coffee for prices that do not even cover the cost of production, while we ensure that half of the end value goes back to the farmer,” he stated.
As the team at Good Land Organics and FRINJ continue their research and development in their quest to expand their coffee-growing expertise, they are hopeful that more California farmers will join the coffee growing movement. Good Land Organics continues to add new varieties of coffee to their operation as well. “This season, we are having our first flowering of about 900 new coffee plants, which is very exciting because next year they will produce fruit,” said Hall.
If you’re curious and want to try California coffee, FRINJ coffee is available for purchase online. If you’re visiting the Santa Barbara area, Good Land Organics welcomes visitors for tours. Visit their website to learn more.
This article was written by Alison Needham, photos by Alison Needham.