California-Grown Coffee: Too Good to Be True?

Wake up and smell the California-grown coffee. That’s right, California-grown coffee.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on a vendor at the Santa Barbara farmer’s market selling home-grown coffee beans.

Shocked? I was. In all of the classes and workshops I’ve attended on sustainability and local food systems, the take-home message has become very clear: coffee travels far. Very far. Any way that we Americans cut it, our precious coffee beans have a high food mileage tag.

But maybe it’s time for California to change things. As a state, it’s successfully mastered grapes and olives—leading to wine and olive oil, two international-worthy industries that have brought European living a bit closer to home for us.

Wine in California.
Wine was first introduced to California in the 18th century when Spaniards came a-traipsing through the state, planting their Catholic missions left and right.  With vine cuttings from Mexico (which were originally brought there from Spain, naturally, back in the 1500s), the Spanish successfully grew wine from the get-go. The wine was used for religious ceremonies at first, and eventually it was integrated into daily life.

Keeping gold diggers whistling while they worked, wine continued to flourish in California through the 19th century when new settlers populated the state. The Chinese community actually played a large role in building the wine industry, but thanks to the “Chinese Exclusion Act” of late 1800s, they were all but absent from the scene soon after.

Olives in California.
Olives—sweet, grassy, nutty, peppery olives—were also introduced to California by the Spanish. Apparently when they weren’t busy conquering land, the Spanish ate well and lived well. Planting missions as they migrated north through the state, olives slowly became integrated into the landscape. Maintained olive orchards date back as far as 1840, and many still exist in the state today.

The olive business remains a tough for growers industry not because of the climate, but because of competition from housing development. The income per acre of an olive plot is 10 times lower than other crops, such wine grapes. But as long as we keep supporting California-grown olive oil (hint-hint), we can hope this industry continues to flourish.

Coffee in California?
It’s been a long time coming—farmers have made numerous attempts to grow coffee in the state in the past. It really began in 1858, when a researcher experimented with coffee trees on his property in Santa Clara. Soon thereafter the state passed legislation encouraging the cultivation of such exotic crops. Other exotics like dragon fruit and passion fruit have had wild success growing in these regions, but the coffee tree? Not so lucky.

Coffee is typically grown in warm, humid, tropical environments where the beans can develop a full, balanced flavor. The state of California, with its varied conditions, ranging from extreme to moderate heat with full sun and minimal moisture, wouldn’t be the most likely candidate for producing quality coffee. There exists, however, a small coastal area outside of Santa Barbara, that may offer some sanctuary for these sacred beans.

Jay Ruskey maintains a ranch Goleta, 15 miles north of Santa Barbara, and he’s been toying with coffee beans since 2002. Led by researcher Mark Gaskell, a University of California farm advisor, the project has resulted in 470 trees, with a mix of 12 coffee varieties coming to fruition in a greenhouse. And get this: it’s all organic. Local coffee, produced by artisans, and grown organically.

Can the prospect of California-grown coffee be a reality? Can I be dreaming? If so, I can only hope to be greeted with a cup of Ruskey’s coffee when I awake.


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