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Jay Ruskey farms coffee plants that he breeds for the California climate and soil conditions.

Todd Fitchette, Associate Editor

November 2, 2020

5 Min Read
Jay Ruskey
Jay Ruskey farms coffee on the California coast near Santa Barbara. He also coaches farmers in the region to grow the premium organic coffee in a state not previously known for its coffee production.Todd Fitchette

Of all the crops California is known for, premium coffee has not been on that list. The perennial plant that commonly grows high in the mountains between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn appears to be doing well in limited locations that favor avocados in the Golden State.

Jay Ruskey farms coffee plants that he breeds for the California climate and soil conditions. It is not easy, he suggests. Arabica coffee contains 44 chromosomes, while most plants contain just 11 chromosomes.

"This makes for a unique breeding situation," he said.

Ruskey owns and operates Goodland Organics near Goleta, Calif. Within Goodland Organics is Frinj Coffee, a company Ruskey formed to profitably produce premium coffee in a region surprisingly suited for what may be the most consumed beverage in the world. At about 34 degrees north latitude, Frinj Coffee may be the northernmost coffee farm on the planet.

Unlike the common coffee growing regions near the Equator, the California coast from Santa Barbara to Escondido does not mimic the high elevation jungles that drip with moisture. The heavy coastal influence within this Mediterranean climate does bode well for the tropical plant in several ways, however.

Ruskey believes he can grow coffee successfully within the zones that favor avocado production because, like avocados, coffee does not like wind or frost. The later can be problematic in wind-protected hillsides along the central California Coast, so careful planning is necessary when setting up locations to plant. Exposure to a marine influence from the Pacific Ocean is helpful with frost control.

California's climate aids in coffee production in other ways. The high moisture common in other world coffee regions can foster coffee leaf rust, a disease that can rob yield and quality. Irrigation technology that includes micro sprinklers and drip tape to water the crops also allows California coffee farmers to do what they do well: apply fertilizer through measured means as the plants need it.

Business model

Through Frinj Coffee Ruskey is helping farmers find their niche with a crop that has access to millions of potential customers. It also plays well with the growing drive to market "locally grown" crops. While coffee as a commodity can change hands numerous times between its common growing regions, Frinj Coffee's model on the "fringe" of that climatic zone gives it a unique ability to market to millions of potential customers looking for a local experience in a state known for its foodie movement.

"If you look at other foods that we have daily or frequently, coffee has one of the most complex supply chains on the planet," Ruskey says. "To get a cup of coffee to the consumer here in California, that coffee has to travel thousands of miles and go through 20 different sets of hands or nodes of movement."

While this may work for a commodity produced in other regions at the scale of pay common to those areas, Ruskey's model looks to combine profitability with quality and marketing savvy agreeable to higher prices for a locally grown, organic coffee.

"We have a consumer that's interested in what we're doing," he continued. "If we can pull off quality first, which is always our main goal, then the consumer has something they're willing to get behind."

His idea is to help U.S. farmers profitably produce premium coffee where other crops may not work at a similar scale and acreage.

"Introducing a perennial crop to California agriculture doesn't happen overnight," he said. "You need to prove the market."

That appears to be happening. Ruskey has helped plant 67 coffee farms from San Diego County to Santa Barbara County in areas that have similarly done well in avocados. Given the global competitive nature of avocados – namely the competition between avocados grown in California and Mexico – premium coffee appears to be one solution to profitability for southern California farmers under the right conditions.

Growing coffee

Ruskey has farmed 30 years on the California coast. Of that, 21 have been dedicated to producing and breeding coffee plants for their quality and tolerance to climatic conditions. All his coffee is certified organic and though not all of the growers he helps have certified their crops with the organic certifying agencies, he encourages growers to do so and is helping them in that process.

Planting typically happens in the spring. Young trees are planted at 14-16 inches high in an orchard configuration of six-by-six or six-by-eight feet. There are several flowering cycles per year once they reach maturity, which happens after year three. Still, steady production does not occur until year four or five. Harvest is done by hand five or six times during the summer as the coffee cherries (the term he uses for the coffee fruit) reach a bright red color. By then the coffee cherries have reached 22-26% sugar.

Like other orchard crops coffee trees are trained through trimming to enhance vigor and production. While coffee is considered a "perfect flower" because it is self-pollinated, they can be enhanced through natural pollinators. Ruskey says bees also tend to enjoy the nectar as it contains small amounts of caffein.

Production and flowing cycles overlap during the season. Knowledgeable harvest crews will pick around the ripening fruit to select mature coffee cherries. Harvest will run from May through September with a peak typically in August. The goal with timely harvest is to remove the harvestable fruit load so the plant can focus on green berry development, he said.

Good production can run about 15 pounds of cherries per tree, with about a pound and a half of sellable coffee from each tree. Ruskey has sold coffee for as much as $450 per pound. He reserves his highest quality coffee for Asian markets, though domestic markets are starting to recognize the quality a bit more and are willing to pay accordingly.

"I think that it is important to recognize the craft and to get the best price back to our farmer," he said. "What we're seeing here in California is an educated consumer who is beginning to really care about where their fruit and food are coming from."

About the Author(s)

Todd Fitchette

Associate Editor, Western Farm Press

Todd Fitchette, associate editor with Western Farm Press, spent much of his journalism career covering agriculture in California and the western United States. Aside from reporting about issues related to farm production, environmental regulations and legislative matters, he has extensive experience covering the dairy industry, western water issues and politics. His journalistic experience includes local daily and weekly newspapers, where he was recognized early in his career as an award-winning news photographer.

Fitchette is US Army veteran and a graduate of California State University, Chico. 

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