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Specialty coffee farming grows in Southern California

Issue Date: March 10, 2021
By Christine Souza
Coffee farming has expanded in Southern California, with 70 farmers growing the crop in a region that stretches from Santa Barbara to San Diego counties.
Photo/Courtesy of FRINJ Coffee Inc.

For many people working from home for the past year during the pandemic, coffee is a must-have commodity—and more have been treating themselves to specialty craft coffee grown in Southern California.

Santa Barbara County coffee farmer Jay Ruskey of Good Land Organics has become known as the pioneer of the craft coffee movement, and has grown California coffee production to include 70 farmers with more than 85,000 coffee trees in Santa Barbara, San Diego, Ventura and Riverside counties.

Ruskey began the coffee endeavor 20 years ago, after interplanting coffee shrubs or trees in rows of avocado groves to see if that would prove to be a commercially viable crop outside of a tropical environment.

"With coffee, it takes four or five years to get a crop. Most of the farms are coming into some level of production next year," he said.

A few years ago, Ruskey incorporated to form FRINJ Coffee Inc. to help farmers and offer services such as research, a breeding program, a milling operation and coffee lab.

"FRINJ is very farmer-driven," he said. "Over 50% of sales is to go back to the farmer, so for every $100 in coffee we sell, $50 goes back to the farmer, which is quite unique in agriculture."

The state's coffee market has seen improvements during the past year of the pandemic, Ruskey said, adding, "By being here in California, we're pursuing one of the most direct sources for coffee you can achieve in the world."

Though total coffee consumption has remained about the same, he said, what has changed is how people are accessing the coffee they drink.

"We are seeing, based on market research and some behaviors, an over 400% increase in direct-roasted coffee sales, which basically translates to the fact that people are brewing at home," Ruskey said. "People are still drinking coffee, and I think some people are drinking more coffee, but the way they get their coffee is different—and plays into what we're doing well."

FRINJ Coffee partners with coffee shops and retail roaster coffee shops to sell its products and conducts direct sales through its website. International sales are also happening, he said, to customers in Japan and in the United Kingdom. Next,Ruskey said he plans to add direct-to-consumer specialty coffee sales.

Market prices for California-grown coffee fluctuate from $65-$450 per pound, he said, comparing it to growing a fine wine.

San Diego County-based Pardee Farms started planting coffee in 2018, said Chris Bailey, farm manager for the family business, which also grows avocados and citrus.

"Coffee is one of the most consumed products in the world, but what we're growing is a super-specialty coffee, and that part of the coffee sector is growing rapidly; there's massive growth," Bailey said. "There's many eclectic coffee shops where people are wanting something unique, and that's what we're growing."

Pardee Farms jumped into coffee farming, Bailey said, "to add value to the existing acreage" and "to maximize the space and utilize that microclimate that the avocados are creating." Coffee trees at Pardee Farms are expected to come into production in 2023.

For growers already producing a crop, harvest typically happens in late May or June. But this year, warmer conditions mean harvest may happen earlier. And with an increase in high winds, coffee growers are considering adding windbreaks to protect both coffee and avocado crops.

A number of FRINJ coffee growers are organically certified through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though it is not a requirement.

Bailey said Pardee Farms uses organically approved products but has not taken steps to become certified, due to the extensive paperwork required. In addition, he said, "there are some situations where we need to apply a material."

"Just with my own medicine, I do everything I can naturally, but when I need to take an antibiotic, then I take it," Bailey said. "Organic farming is about being proactive, so building soil health and healthy plants," he said, "so we try to be proactive on the front end and then when we get behind or have an issue, we treat it as necessary."

Mark Gaskell, farm advisor emeritus with University of California Cooperative Extension in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, worked with Ruskey on coffee in the early 2000s.

At the time, Gaskell said he helped develop organic management techniques for coffee. The USDA certified-organic designation came about as a way of clarifying and stabilizing marketing, he said, with the certification meaning buyers worldwide know the product has met a specific set of criteria.

"I'm sure there are some roasters that only want organic coffee or deal with some other designation of sustainably grown, so I can see where there are some situations where it could be key and in others, it may not be relevant," Gaskell said. "I think in some cases, growers are just not set up to handle the details of organic certification, or it is because of their other cropping system."

Ruskey, who is also an agronomist, said he and other FRINJ farmers have volunteered their farms for an environmental study.

Cinzia Fissore, associate professor of biology and environmental sciences at Whittier College, is working with Ruskey and other farmers to further her research related to carbon sequestration and soil nutrients at farms that have a layered agricultural system of coffee and avocados.

"Coffee grows in very biodiverse systems as an intercrop," Fissore said. "This is a perfect and forward-thinking approach to really improve carbon quality and keep the carbon in the soil, which is really what we want, not only for climate change reasons, but also because this guarantees healthy characteristics to the soil that are preserved, such as better water retention and better nutrient exchange."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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