Growing Coffee on the Frinj


Long growing seasons allow cherries to ripen in Santa Barbara County. Photo by Carla Shryock

 

This article originally appeared in STiR Coffee and Tea magazine 

By Dan Shryock

Jay Ruskey walks among his coffee trees, pushing back branches in search of ripe cherries. A broad-brimmed hat shields his eyes from the bright Southern California sun on this warm June morning.

He finds two ripened Caturra Rojo cherries and offers them to guests. He watches their surprise as they taste the fruit, then turns and walks toward another tree. “Want to try a geisha?” he asks.

Ruskey is proud of his work. He’s the first farmer to successfully cultivate a commercial coffee crop in the mainland United States. He also developed a collaborative network of what he calls “partner growers” that pools its harvest of specialty coffee beans. His new company, Frinj Coffee, Inc., then processes and sells it to Blue Bottle Coffee.

It hasn’t been easy, Ruskey admits. “I didn’t wake up and just say ‘let’s do coffee, this is going to do it.’ There was no specialty market at the time we first planted them,” he says. “My trees developed as this market did. It’s been an interesting evolution.”

It’s been 16 years since that first planting. Frinj Coffee and its partner growers now have nearly 27,000 trees in the ground, all at different stages of maturity. Some farmers, like Robert D’Alessandri in rural Temecula, are planting for the first time. D’Alessandri’s coffee crop eventually will complement his mandarin orange and grape production.

Ruskey anticipates these farms will grow in scale over time. In 2017, the oldest trees produced 270 pounds of highly rated, organically grown beans in different varietals that Blue Bottle purchased at $60 to $80 per pound. And those beans are selling in Blue Bottle coffee shops for as much as $16 a cup.

Harvest numbers for 2018 are not yet available but negotiations with Blue Bottle already are underway. Some of this year’s harvest is being set aside for other buyers as well.

“Why? What?”

Ruskey and his family traveled to Los Angeles on Christmas Eve 2017 in search of their coffee. They found it at a downtown Blue Bottle shop, placed their order and took their first sips. “It was amazing that it tasted so great, brewed exactly the way we intended it,” Ruskey recalls. “We were pleased that the people’s first experience with the coffee was done that way.”

The roots of that cup of coffee started in 2002 when Dr. Mark Gaskell, then a farm advisor with the University of California’s Cooperative Extension, came to Ruskey with an unusual suggestion. Try growing coffee.

“Why? What?” Ruskey now says, recalling his reaction. “It wasn’t obvious to me that coffee would be something that had a chance here in California. But I was still young and trying a lot of different things, so I just planted them within my avocados in a block that had shared irrigation and management.”

Gaskell’s idea was founded in research and personal observation. Now retired and an honored farm advisor emeritus, Gaskell recalls how he studied coffee cultivation in Central America and the Caribbean Islands.

“I had worked with a lot of coffee farmers over the years and I was familiar with coffee production,” Gaskell says. “It wasn’t surprising to me that coffee plants could survive (in California) but I put it out of my mind because I didn’t think it could be a viable alternative for small farms in California.”

Gaskell was concerned that production costs, specifically labor, land, and water, would be too high. But a visit to Hawaii changed his mind.

“I went to a coffee co-op on the big island and I realized how similar the farm was to Jay’s farm,” Gaskell remembers. “It struck me. If Hawaii can make a business out of growing coffee (with its high production costs), we could do it in California.”

As a Cooperative Extension farm advisor, it was Gaskell’s job to help small growers improve efficiency and remain viable. The two men already had a strong working relationship because Gaskell focused on specialty crops and Ruskey’s Good Land Organics farm near Goleta, Calif., grew avocados and sub-tropical fruits.

“I depend on growers like Jay who are open, innovative and willing to take chances,” Gaskell says.

Ruskey accepted the challenge and planted three varieties collected by Gaskell. Three years later, it was evident that they could produce a consistent crop.

”For the first couple years, I had no critical eye because I didn’t know what I was looking at,” Ruskey admits. “Eventually we had a harvest, so I sat down and de-pulped all these cherries and shipped it to some kind of cupper in Los Angeles. I didn’t know what a cupper even was, and he says ‘it’s decent coffee but you need to work on your post-harvest. What is post-harvest?”

Processes improved with the learning curve and soon Good Land Organics was selling roasted coffee in glass jars at Southern California farmers markets. He developed a word-of-mouth following with customers who wanted more beans yet weren’t very concerned about price.


Long growing seasons allow cherries to ripen in Santa Barbara County. 
Photo by Carla Shryock

"A happy accident”

Ruskey’s 42-acre farm is positioned on slopes only 300 feet above sea level. His 1,500 trees are planted among the avocados and passion fruit. Still, the coffee trees benefit from climatic conditions that replicate high-elevation farms in Central America. The coffee quality is a result of what Ruskey calls “a happy accident.”

“At our (34th) latitude there’s long sunlight in June – 15 hours of sunlight – resulting in a flowering that turns to green bean development. That slows down in the winter as the daylight hours decrease to the point where most of the development almost stalls depending on the temperature,” Ruskey explains. “Then when March and April come around and things warm up, the crop finishes off. We then have 15 hours of sunlight and dry conditions in June for harvest.”

The original experiment was to determine how much shade is optimal, so some coffee was planted under the shade of avocado trees with other trees in full sunlight. Ruskey found that more sun equals more fruit.

Ruskey’s farm also benefits from breezes off the Pacific Ocean less than five miles away and a small likelihood of frost.

“When we originally planted the coffee, we were really concerned about frost. Like avocados, they can’t handle 32 degrees for very long or anything below that,” he says. Avocados are a good indicator crop for the potential success of coffee because both crops have similar soil and water quality requirements. Avocados also provide windbreaks “because the wind can be almost as bad as the frost.”

Ruskey also keeps an eye on local “sundowner winds” that blow hot and dry from the north along the south coast of Santa Barbara County. The winds are notorious for fanning devastating wildfires.

“My worry is the dry winds that come down the hills,” he says. “At sunset the temperatures will climb 20 to 30 degrees higher and we’ll get winds and humidity will drop to single digits. That will go until midnight. When that happens, we crank the irrigation on, hold tight and keep our noses in the air.”

The Frinj Coffee Collaborative

Coffee cultivation is not limited to the Goleta farm. Thirty farms across northern San Diego County and southern Riverside County, long known for its avocado production, have joined the Frinj Coffee collaborative. Nearly 25 of those farms are contributing to the harvest. The others are planting their first trees this year. In all, 15 varieties are grown and more trees are in production than ever before.

At harvest, Frinj Coffee takes its mobile processing equipment to each farm instead of transporting them for hours by truck to Goleta.

Frinj Coffee also looks for new systems and advanced science. The company is working with Denver-based Bext360’s blockchain technology to get real-time analysis of its harvest from the field. The company also signed a five-year contract with Front Range Biosciences to ensure Frinj farmers get quality plants.

“It ramps up to 5 million plantlets over the five years,” Ruskey says of the Front Range agreement. “It creates a backup for my genetics. There is some genetic drifting that we see within the varieties. There is open pollinating and there’s the ability for 10 to 15% cross-pollination with other varieties. If there are individual plants that are performing better than others, now we can take clones of that specific plant and we don’t get that genetic drift.”

Because coffee is new to the region, there are no natural pests, Gaskell says. Mediterranean fruit flies, a decades-old threat to California agriculture, have been trapped in San Diego County and coffee cherries are potential host plants. Normally, a fruit fly discovery would prevent cherries from being transported out of the county.

But, Gaskell says, on-site coffee processing resolves the problem. The harvested pulp and any potential fruit fly eggs would remain in the area while the beans move on. “The eggs are staying with the pulp and are buried. It works out well.”

 

The future of California coffee

 

Ruskey and Gaskell have proven high yields and high-quality specialty coffee can be produced in California. “Anywhere you grow avocados you can grow coffee,” Gaskell says. “The mild effects of the ocean currents still influence that. You’d have to go to 2,200 meters in Central America to get these temperatures.”

 

And, the region’s farmers are looking for alternatives.

 

“There has been a reduction in small avocado growers in the past five years. Market changes, the cost of water, and water quality are making a lot of these smaller farmers go out of business or working marginal returns,” Ruskey says. “My hope is that this can give them an opportunity to diversify or switch crops.”

 

Ruskey finds personal satisfaction in the birth of commercial coffee in California. He and Gaskell set out to find “the next new crop” and they succeeded.

 

“We had no idea there would be any market for it when we started,” he says. “It’s fun that this could become an important crop for California.”

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