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There is coffee growing in California. And if this elicits a whaaa? sort of reaction from you, you're not alone. Sarah Henry told me that so many have asked her after looking at her book, Farmsteads of the California Coast (Yellow Pear Press, 2016): "Coffee? Really? From California?" And Sarah gets to say yes. California, really.
She can even pinpoint the first farm doing it, the one she wrote about in Farmsteads: Good Land Organics (GLO), in Goleta, is a ship steered by farmer Jay Ruskey, who has developed a reputation in California for successfully growing the crops that no one thought possible to grow in the region—mostly subtropical crops like cherimoyas, finger limes, passionfruit, dragonfruit. (The farm even grows lychees and goji berries.) And now coffee.
According to Lindsey Mesta, GLO's operations manager, quality control manager, and coffee roaster, Jay has been developing Californian coffee for about 12 years. He's worked closely with Mark Gaskell, a farm advisor at UC Davis, for much of those 12 years; Mark shares Jay's excitement about growing subtropical produce in California, making them the perfect duo for the GLO coffee experiment.
Mark had an intuition that this area and Jay's farm in particular would be a good area for growing coffee, Lindsey told me. He helped source coffee plants from El Salvador Research Institute, over ten varietals. He was gifted a beloved coffee varietal called Geisha from Price Peterson (of the coffee farm Hacienda La Esmeralda) in Panama. The two crossed their fingers, hoping the plants would survive in the Santa Barbara foothills.
Not only that, but they flourished, producing beans that have been well received by coffee cuppers and rated highly by the Specialty Coffee Association of America—in the 80 to 90 (out of 100) range, which designates the beans as "specialty" (that is, not mass market coffee). This means that GLO can reach the specialty coffee market, the people who seek out high-quality coffee and are willing to pay a premium for it. Think wine: "The future of specialty coffee is people looking at varietals—seeking out the Merlot versus the Cab," said Lindsey. GLO currently grows 12 different varietals (across 600 trees), and sells them individually at farmers markets (where they constantly sell out, according to Sarah) and online: $30 for 5 ounces and $65 for 12 ounces.
More: What coffee really tastes like, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
This may sound like a lot—and it's probably a lot more than you've paid for imported coffee. But there are a few major differences that account for the higher price point: The price of water, the price of land, and the price of labor in California are significantly higher than outside the U.S. And the labor that goes into coffee is intensive at every step of production, from tree care to harvesting, to drying the berries and roasting them. GLO coffee is grown and roasted on the same farm, which is rare; most coffee production sees a lot of middlemen—for exporting, importing, distributing, roasting.
"Farmers around the world are not being supported financially for the commodity, and I think we need to change that," Lindsey said. "Bringing and appreciation for coffee and where it comes from can help drive coffee prices up." (Plus, their coffee—being the only coffee produced within the continental U.S., let alone in California—is rare and unusual. And it's certified grown organically.) Even with the price tag, demand is outpacing supply.
GLO leads tours during the harvest season, May through September, to acquaint people with what a coffee farm is like. "People are very separated from where coffee comes from," said Lindsey. "People get to experience the whole process, from seed to cup. It changes your perspective on your morning cup of coffee. It's a miracle that the coffee can come to you every morning and taste so good."
It's a miracle they're even able to produce coffee at all. "We call this a fringe farm," Lindsey told me. It's outside of the tropics, and therefore one wouldn't believe it possible to grow coffee there—and yet they're able to, thanks to living in a frost-free-but-not-too-hot zone. Lindsey believes that the role of the fringe farm—and effort and research put into trying to grow crops in places where they've never been grown before—will be increasingly important as climate change continues to affect farmers.
GLO has been doing research of their own, since there was no guide to growing coffee in California. While many coffee farms elsewhere can rely on natural rainfall, GLO has to irrigate. But this is actually a benefit, said Lindsey, since irrigation helps them attain a consistency in the quality of the beans that's harder to achieve when you're dependent on the weather. It also increases efficiency of production and is better for the health of the trees.
And the farm's preexisting avocado orchards only help the coffee production: The coffee trees are planted beneath the avocado trees, which gives them the necessary shade and, because avocado trees drop their leaves, making a thick, moist layer of mulch, helps save water—especially valuable in the midst of the drought that's threatened so many California farms.
They also credit their success to the non-natural resources that California has to offer. While they've been alone in their coffee farming and have had to learn everything about coffee from the ground up—like how much water the trees need—through trial and error, there's easy access to many of the tools they need, like organic fertilizer and fermentation tools used by the wine industry. And then, there's the wine industry itself. GLO has taken a number of cues from wine growers regarding, for example, the efficiency and layout of their farm. "Utilizing California land to produce the most high-yielding farms possible is something we're applying to coffee," Lindsey explained. They're also learning how post-harvest wine fermentation science can be applied to coffee, and weighing the possibilities of modeling a post-harvest cooperative after those in the wine industry.
They already have a collaborative network of farmers beginning to grow coffee from GLO's trees, which they grow and sell in their nursery; there are currently 15 farmers in addition to Jay growing coffee plants. Many of them, like Jay, grow avocados, which means that they have part of the coffee-growing infrastructure already in place.
Jay, Lindsey, and the GLO provide care information and guidance, and so far, the other farmers have been enthusiastic. "Jay's one part farmer, one part maverick, one part scientist," Sarah said. "He's got the right personality to give it a go." It's also why she wanted to include GLO in her book: It might seem strange to include a coffee farmer—essentially the lone coffee farmer—in a relatively slim volume of California's farmers—but for Sarah, Jay and GLO are representative of California agriculture. "No one thought blueberries could be grown in California—and look how well they've done," she reminded. Maybe it's the future of Californian coffee, too.
"We're growing Arabica coffee on a fringe farm and doing it organically. We're doing all the wrong things," Lindsey said, "but we're doing it right. There's a lot of potential in thinking outside the box. That's a huge component of what we're promoting with California coffee."