A Visit to California’s First Coffee Farm

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Bright red coffee cherries at Good Land Organics in Goleta. Each coffee cherry has two seeds which are processed to become coffee beans. Photo: Lindsey Mesta

In California, local food has two pitfalls: coffee and chocolate. At best, people can hope that the beans were roasted nearby and the cocoa transformed into a bar within their city’s limits, but no one expects the coffee or cacao to be grown in California, let alone North America.

Yet earlier this week, I stood with Evan Kleiman on a south facing hillside in Goleta, CA amidst avocado trees, dragon fruit cacti, passion fruit vines and coffee plants. The plants were in various states of maturity – some small bushes while others had grown overhead, their green leaves heavy with bright red coffee cherries and white flowers that resemble jasmine. The orchard is owned and operated by farmer Jay Ruskey, an agronomist with an interest in rare fruit and polyculture. Higher up on the hillside, orchards of cherimoyas, finger limes and a few baby banana trees dotted the property. As we walked down a dirt road through the orchards, Ruskey explained that his unique microclimate allows him to mimic the coffee-growing climates of South America.

“Most high quality Arabica coffees are growing at high altitude tropical locations where they are trying to grow in places that are cooler at night and slowing down the maturation process. We’re taking what they’re doing in tropical altitude and applying it to latitude.”

The ocean air helps prevent frost and the cool nights are favorable for developing flavor, but what Ruskey doesn’t have is rain. In tropical climates, growers depend on heavy rainfall to irrigate their plants, but Ruskey has been able to irrigate his plants on the same lines he uses to irrigate his avocados.

Coffee plants are available for sale. Photo: Lindsey Mesta. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

So far the planting is tiny – barely enough to supply a third wave coffee shop for a busy weekend, but Ruskey has started selling his crop to clients in Europe and Asia who are paying $60/lb for his unroasted beans. You can purchase 5 oz bags of Good Land Organics roasted coffee for $27 online, and those with a green thumb can purchase their own heirloom coffee plants at the Santa Monica Wednesday Farmers’ Market or at the California Grown Coffee website which also shares helpful tips on how to care for the plants.

Right now, even coffee nerds may balk at the price tag, but Ruskey compares his burgeoning industry to wine. If California consumers are willing to pay for premium wine, why not pay for premium coffee? Lindsey Mesta, operations manager and coffee roaster at Good Land Organics, carefully brewed us a cup during our visit. I am no professional cupper, but that was undoubtedly the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. And judging from Evan’s reaction, she’d agree.