Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Changing Latitudes: Coffee Grows in Santa Barbara and, Someday, May Grow Here {Edible Monterey Bay}

Along with my article about coffee roasting in the Winter 2013 edition of Edible Monterey Bay, there's this piece about Jay Ruskey and his Good Land Organics. Click to read it online: here. It's the second piece down. Keep scrolling!

Changing Latitudes: Coffee Grows in Santa Barbara and, Someday, May Grow Here
by Camilla M. Mann

Jay Ruskey has created a sub-tropical haven of exotic crops at his ranch called Good Land Organics in Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara. With the warm, southern orientation of his Condor Ridge Ranch, Ruskey cultivates cherimoyas, dragon fruits, white sapotes and goji berries.

Nine years ago, he also began growing coffee, but he didn’t have high expectations.

“I was skeptical when I saw blossoms,” he says. “Berries followed. And suddenly we had mature red coffee cherries.”

Almost all of the world’s coffee grows between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, and until Ruskey began his experiment together with Mark Gaskell of UC Santa Barbara’s Cooperative Extension, the northernmost place that anyone was growing coffee was some 19° latitude to the south. Since then, Ruskey has become the first American farmer outside of Hawaii to sell coffee.

Ruskey and Gaskell are evaluating all aspects of growing coffee in California and testing a dozen varieties of high-quality Arabica coffee plants. Among them is Geisha, an ancient Ethiopian bean prized as a single-origin coffee with a lightly floral aroma; coffee magnate Price Peterson, of Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama, personally transported the plants to Ruskey.

“As with wine, you can’t make a good wine with bad grapes, right? Well, you can’t make a good cup of coffee with inferior beans,” Ruskey says.

Coffee plants normally require moderately warm temperatures and humidity to flourish, and rely on a rainy season typical of the tropics to properly flower and pollinate. Hawaii is the only U.S. state that offers these kinds of conditions.

Still, Good Land’s coffee plants are adapting. Under the protective shade of Ruskey’s avocado trees, Ruskey’s coffee bushes operate on a different growing cycle, with their coffee cherries taking 12 months to mature—longer than anywhere else. Slower maturation means that the bean has more time to darken and develop. Dark red coffee cherries have the highest sugar level, which translates into a better cup of coffee—and indeed Good Land’s coffee has received excellent ratings. But the bushes are continuously producing new berries, and the long-term effects of this lack of a rest period for the plants are unknown.

And there are other challenges to growing a profitable local cup of coffee in California.

“One tree yields 6–7 pounds of ripe cherries, or about 1 pound of roasted coffee beans per year. That’s a lot of picking and processing for a small yield,” Ruskey says.

Still, the value of good coffee has increased—and is rising all the time.

Only a short time ago, Americans were content with unspecified coffee blends. Today, more discerning consumer palates have raised the bar for coffee—and the prices. The Geisha variety, for example, can sell for upwards of $100 per pound; Ruskey is currently selling his Caturra/Typica variety through Good Land’s website for $22 per 5-ounce bag, or about $70 per pound. (If that price isn’t too staggering, place your order and your locally grown coffee will be roasted-to-order.)

Farmers have tried over the years to grow coffee in California and, in fact, coffee was cultivated successfully near Santa Barbara in the 1870s. But coffee pioneers were hindered by the high cost of labor and low productivity of the plants in these temperate regions.

Today, considering the growing interest in specialty coffees and the current ardent appetite for locally grown produce, Ruskey is convinced of the viability of his project and would eventually like to become a coffee wholesaler.

He and Gaskell are organizing a Santa Barbara coffee growers association and are recruiting farmers in other parts of California to join them in their research.

Thus far, the northernmost grower to participate in the research farms in Morro Bay, but Ruskey considers thriving citrus and avocadoes to be a good indicator that a particular area could also support coffee plants. If you farm land where these trees thrive and you’d like to become a part of the coffee research trials, Ruskey would love to hear from you.


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