Agri View: Growing a Coffee Crop in the U.S.

Dan Agri View, Specialty Crops

Coffee crop
Everett Griner talks about an attempt to grow a coffee crop in the United States in today’s Agri View.

Growing a Coffee Crop in the U.S.

From: California

Elevating coffee

From his Southern California farm, entrepreneur and exotic tree-fruit grower Jay Ruskey is setting out to elevate people’s coffee experiences around the world. He’s making a name for himself with a crop that traditionalists say can be grown only in countries closer to the Equator.

coffee cropRaised in Hollywood, Ruskey left Tinseltown to pursue life alongside the ocean in Goleta, near Santa Barbara. He partnered with his family to purchase 42 acres for his farm, Good Land Organics, in 1990 and since has grown exotic, subtropical crops such as avocados, cherimoyas, passion fruit, dragon fruit, finger limes and caviar limes.

He now also grows, processes and roasts his own specialty coffee varieties, with Good Land Organics holding title as the first successful commercial coffee farm in the continental United States.

“The whole coffee world is blowing up,” said Ruskey, who harvested, roasted and bagged his first coffee crop in 2008. “Today, specialty coffee is treated like wine was 10 years ago. It is emerging; people are appreciating it for its flavor, for the story, how it’s brewed, what it’s paired with. It is now up there as a fine food.”

coffee crop

Good Land Organics owner Jay Ruskey is California’s first successful commercial coffee grower.

Coastal coffee
Growing coffee in California is the result of a longtime collaboration between Ruskey and University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor Mark Gaskell. The pair, after about a dozen years of research, found a way for coffee trees and other exotic crops to flourish, thanks to the area’s temperate climate.

Good Land Organics is located just 2 miles from the Pacific Ocean, at an elevation of 650 feet, and Ruskey said the farm benefits from the mild summers and frost-free winters.

“In the tropics, most coffee is grown in full sun, but the valuable coffee is grown in the shade or the higher elevations, which slows down the maturation of the bean, which makes it a little more flavorful,” he explained. “What is done in altitude or shade in the tropics, we are achieving with cooler average temperatures. It just takes longer—up to a year—to go from flower to ripe fruit and, in turn, this creates some very unique and strong flavors, which we are getting recognized for.”

Ruskey plants the coffee trees, which are actually small, flowering shrubs, sharing space among avocados in a layered agricultural system. This system protects the coffee trees from wind and provides shade on sunny days. It also increases productivity of the land, he said, “in a way that everybody benefits,” because he can more efficiently use resources such as land and water.

Tree to bean

Each summer, Good Land Organics harvests the ripened fruit of the coffee shrub, known as cherries, from about a dozen different coffee tree varieties. Ruskey’s trees have been growing for about nine years, with harvest times from May through September. Coffee tours are offered during those months (see article below) and participants can view flowering trees as well as the harvesting of coffee cherries.

coffee crop

Operations Manager Lindsey Mesta harvesting coffee cherries.

“That’s quite an experience because it is pretty rare to see both anywhere in the world,” Ruskey said.

Each cherry on the coffee plant typically contains two seeds, which are referred to as beans. Ruskey explained that harvest happens when the coffee cherries are as red as possible, “so that the sugar content is 20 percent or above, so they are very sweet.”

“The specialty market is starting to pay farmers for harvesting the cherries when they are actually ripe, so they are beginning to get rewarded for good agricultural practices, which is resulting in improved cups of coffee,” he said.

Once the cherries are hand-harvested, the pulp is separated from the beans. After fermenting in water, the beans are sun-dried on racks and rotated daily. They are next moved into a temperature-controlled corner of the farm’s barn to continue drying. Once the beans reach a specific moisture content, they are stored in breathable cloth bags for curing, which lasts two to three months.

Lindsey Mesta, Good Land Organics operations manager, oversees the post-harvest process and quality control. She said once the coffee has finished curing, it is hulled, which means the bean’s thin outer layer (known as parchment) is removed. It can then be sold in its green bean form or roasted.

Chris Calkins, a farmer from Carlsbad, recently visited Good Land Organics and tasted two of its coffee varieties.”Coffee goes through many stages that can make or break it in the final cup; everything is extremely relevant to the quality,” Mesta said. “What’s unique about our farm is it goes through every stage in our hands. We touch the bean in every stage, so that we can be very in control of the quality that we are selling.”

“It was as good as or better than any coffee I’ve tasted anywhere,” Calkins said, adding that he believes coffee is a “wonderful niche crop” for California.

“Jay’s passion for the product and for trying to find ways in which you can diversify—in unique ways—California’s agriculture, I think is important,” he continued. “What he has done is bring a passion for trying to find some unique products for California that fit today’s obsession or interest in food and food crops.”

Bean to cup
Good Land Organics sells the green coffee beans wholesale to international and domestic clients and to local coffee roasters. The farm also offers fresh-roasted beans through its website at Ruskey said 8 pounds of cherries yield about 1 pound of dried green coffee beans.

coffee crop

Coffee cherries turn red when ripe, as shown in cup, and are then harvested and processed into green coffee beans. Good Land Organics sells green coffee beans to specialty roasters and consumers, and also offers freshly roasted beans.

“My ultimate goal is to provide specialty roasters and coffee shops with green beans and they get to roast it to their preference and then serve it fresh,” Ruskey said. “There is a time clock: Roasted beans should be served no later than 10 days after they are roasted or they start losing their aromas.

“When you drink the coffee and say, ‘Usually I need cream and sugar, but I don’t need cream and sugar; this is great,’ that’s my ultimate compliment, because the coffee is a balance of sweetness and acidity and has some body,” he said, adding that those qualities—as well as flavor that gets better as it cools—are what he looks for in a cup of coffee.

In addition to selling coffee beans, Ruskey started a nursery that specializes in coffee tree varieties. He sells them to farmers interested in growing coffee and also to roasteries and coffee shops as décor.

“There are new roasteries popping up, new cafés popping up. It’s a new awareness of a consumable we’ve already been drinking quite frequently,” Mesta said.

“It would just be more fun to have more people exposed to the specialty side of coffee,” she added, “to have people go look for their local roasterie and get into coffee and see where we’re headed.”

Article published Jan./Feb. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Michelle Nunes and courtesy of California Bountiful