Coffee Farming in California? Good Land Organics Gives GC a Brew-Torial
Four of Good Land Organics’ twelve exquisite coffee vintages– Caturra amarillo, Geisha, Leroy, Mundo novo, and Pacamara—sound more like far-off vacation destinations than coffee plants, but they signify just a small portion of what the coffee farmers are currently growing in the hills of Goleta, California.
Good Land Organics, a 24-year-old certified organic farm in southern California, has 20 acres of diversified crops. Among their ranks are cherimoyas (a sub-tropical fruit from South America), caviar limes (an incredible garnish native to Australia), passion fruit, avocados, and 1,000 mature coffee plants—the latter of which have garnered much attention in recent years, as most Americans don’t know that it’s possible to grow coffee right here in the United States.
These exotic fruits mark a labor of love for Jay Ruskey, the owner of Good Land Organics. Emphasis on the word labor, as his prodigious crop of coffee cherries all ripen at different times. In order to provide customers with the best-tasting cup of coffee possible, Ruskey and his team pluck the ripe fruit by hand. (The popularized alternative to this method is a mechanized harvest, which involves shaking the cherries from the tree and shedding both ripe and unripened fruit, which doesn’t always make for the best cup o’ joe.) Mechanized harvest—despite its unfavorable effects on flavor– is actually the norm throughout the coffee belt (the part of the world that produces the world’s largest coffee crops—a region that wraps around the planet between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn) and it is one of the reasons so many of us require cream and sugar in our coffee.
As for the cherimoyas grown in California, they are missing their native pollinator– the Rove beetle– so Ruskey and his team pollinate the fruit by hand around 3:30 PM. “They have to be in the mood,” Ruskey laughed. “We play a little salsa music.”
Ruskey studied Agribusiness at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he helped initiate a program called California Rare Fruit Growers. Their mission was to grow rare crops in California, and it would soon become a mantra that weaved throughout his life. “I was kind of the exotic guy with cherimoyas. That was my original crop,” Ruskey told me as we walked the farm. Until meeting Mark Gaskell of the UC Small Farm Program (a multi-agency farmer existent program that’s been around for 100 years), Gaskell was the first to grow blueberries in the state of California. (Today, the state is a top producer of blueberries, after Maine.)
It was Gaskell who recommended that Ruskey grow coffee. “I thought this is crazy– why would I do this?” he recounts—“But the coffee grew, and once it started to flower and fruit, we plucked each little one,” he continues. “Today, we’ve gotten to the point where we have had several 90+ cups of coffee.”
Coffee, like fine wine, is cupped, sipped, and rated on a point system. Ruskey targets avocado growers throughout California because avocados share the same ecology as a coffee plant— they’re lovers of water and their Achilles heel is frost. There are now 12 farms throughout the state of California growing coffee, thanks to Good Land Organics, and most recently they’ve expanded to San Diego, where the outlet has planted another three- to four-thousand coffee plants.
How Coffee Is Grown in California
Growing a plush tree that produces delicate white flowers and cherry red fruit is somewhat of an art form. It all begins with the coffee cherry, which typically contains two seeds (also known as beans) and sometimes one round peaberry, which is something of an anomalous seed: typical coffee beans develop with one flattened side, but if only one of the seeds is fertilized, it becomes what is known as a peaberry, because there is nothing to flatten it.
The next stage is germination (the sprouting of seed to plant), which takes 2-3 months. From there you have to wait 3-5 years until you have a fully-developed tree that flowers.
Good Land uses an irrigation drip system for its precision coffee, which is a system that a mere ten percent of coffee growers use. “Another interesting aspect is that the coffee is full-sun coffee,” Ruskey explains of his California crops. “For many growing regions, it takes 6-7 months from flower to fruit. The reason you hear of “shade grown coffee” is because of high elevations, which slows down the maturation of your coffee. We are at 32 latitude (18 degrees removed from the coffee belt) so we flower in June when there is 15 hours of daylight and the fruit develops.”
“Come September, the fruit gets cold so its metabolism stops,” he explains further. “Then in March it starts up again, so we have this cold period that stresses them a bit, which allows us to create a 12-month maturation that has contributed to why we produce a unique cup of coffee.”
To remove the coffee’s mucilage or skin (which is edible and incredibly tasty, for those who may be curious,) the fruit is moved through a de-pulper that causes it to release a vinegar-like odor.
From there, the seeds are sun-dried for a few days before they are washed and stacked on drying racks inside the barn house, where Ruskey will slow dry them for 10-14 days. Next is the rest period– traditionally called “reposo”— where the beans cure for 2-3 months before they are hulled.
After that the coffee undergoes a screening process where the beans are separated by size, sorted out to exclude defective beans and ensure that those that make it to sale are fully-developed. Then there is another drying and sorting stage before the yield is run through a screen for a fifth sorting stage. “There’s a lot of hand touching before you even get to the roaster,” Ruskey explains. “All of this happens in varying degrees depending upon your cup of coffee. But if you’re paying for a $3 cup of coffee then you’re probably skipping a few stages. If you’re buying a $10 cup of coffee those stages are more important,” he elaborates.
This summer Good Land received a 91.25 rating for their Geisha coffee variety. Six months prior to that they had received a 91 for their Caturra variety. After years of dedication to their craft, Good Land’s hard work seems to have paid off, and the potential of growing coffee in California seems not only plausible, but capable of yielding some of the nation’s best coffee—a novelty for Americans, who are typically unfamiliar with the idea that coffee can be grown domestically (let alone well), right here in the United States.
Good Land Organic’s blog, California Coffee Growers, has great tips for home coffee growers and anyone looking to learn more about how coffee is grown. Visit their website to purchase a Coffea arabica plant of your own!