Interview: Good Land Organics Farmer Jay Ruskey Discusses Growing Coffee in Santa Barbara County
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The last night of my recent trip to Santa Barbara included a rooftop mixer at the Canary Hotel featuring local farmers, winemakers and artisans. One of the most interesting people there was Jay Ruskey, a Hollywood native who grows exotic fruits like cherimoya, lychee and longan with wife Kristen at their farm in nearby Goleta, called Good Land Organics. He was representing his caviar limes. The long green citrus fruits feature a core cluster of crunchy, tart beads and are normally called finger limes, but as Ruskey says, “I’d rather eat caviar than fingers.” They were interesting to be sure, but not compared to Ruskey’s other crop: coffee, which is pretty much unthinkable to grow in the continental United States, until now. Coffee is part of a feasibility study implemented by Ruskey and University of California advisor Mark Gaskell, who sourced the beans from Latin America. Ruskey is processing and roasting the coffee on-site, and recently started selling Good Land Organics coffee by the cup at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. He better explained how coffee arrived in Santa Barbara County, and what the future holds for coffee in the area.
Why did you decide to grow coffee?
I’ve been working with the UC Farm Extension Service, which is a branch out of the University of California, a multi-funded agency. We’ve been working with them on lychees and longans, and one of the advisors recommended coffee. So we started casually planting some coffee to see how it would all work and were able to establish the first crop. We were getting some good yields with some good flavors. Early cupping results were great. Then we expanded the trials to other varieties from well known seeds and we emerged into what we are today, a little more advanced in the trial. We’ve done some more test marketing, and we’re seeing some good results. A lot has to do with the maturation of the specialty coffee market that has happened simultaneously, so just like fine wines, fine coffees.
Where is your coffee available?
We’ve been making it available at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market, strictly. One of the reasons is that’s where I test market a lot of our crops. We get instant feedback from your customers, but really the most important part of it is the ability to sell it locally because coffee is so widely consumed in the U.S. and almost all of it is imported, so we really want to keep this coffee as local as possible and promote the benefits of local crops.
So it won’t be sitting for six weeks in a shipping container in a port?
If you’re lucky, that’s a small timeframe. We want people to know where the coffee’s from, how it’s done, maybe even the varieties, because we have different varieties of beans. There’s this whole nomenclature and knowledge of how it’s roasted, how it’s processed, what time of year it was harvested, and that’s what we’re hoping to make a new, feasible crop for area farmers.
Who’s roasting the coffee?
We’ve been learning the art form of roasting the coffee ourselves. We feel that it’s important to vertically integrate. One of the models we’ve looked at is the Kona coffee model. They’ve been successful growing in an area that has high labor costs by producing their own coffee on the farm, not only growing it, but also processing it and post-havesting and roasting it, including doing farm tours and selling their coffee from the farm. That’s been a very successful model. So we think with the Kona model and the interest in farm tours – like some of the wineries have in Santa Barbara – that type of hybrid approach is going to be a successful model for coffee in the Santa Barbara region.
If people come to visit your farm, is there a room to try your product?
We’re putting in the infrastructure now for a bar in the shed for something like that. I already give coffee tours for the production side where you can come, walk around, see the orchards, depending on the time of year. Last year we did some farm tours with people who were picking, and getting involved in some of the processing, and tasting our coffee. That’s part of our future business model, to allow for coffee tours. You can go to our website and see what dates you can do, pay for the tour and come on up so we can educate them on coffee. It’s amazing to see the amount of interest.
Would you say that you have any mentors in terms of growing, roasting and processing coffee?
Yeah. Well, I’ve always had Mark Gaskell, who’s at the UC Farm Extension. He’s probably one of those individuals who introduced the California blueberry, that’s now widely grown. He’s been one of the motivators and specialty crop advisors. I’ve had some good advice from Price Pearson from Panama. He has Hacienda La Esmeralda coffee, which is one of the most widely respected coffee beans in the world. He does the Geisha coffee, so he’s visited the farm and offered his input. Those are kind of our two leading motivators. There’s a world of information out there. Like anything in an art form and agriculture, it’s all about keep on trying, keep on improving. So that’s where we’re at.
How did you decide which varietals to plant?
It all came back to Mr. Gaskell and Mr. Price on what varieties they recommended and offered. Mark Gaskell went to an El Salvador research station and got some of the best varieties, as well as we’re taking seeds off the successful plants that we see here. They’re Arabica Cattura and Arabica Typicas were what we first started with, but now we’ve expanded into Pacas, Cattura Amarillo. We also have some Leroy and some other varieties that I might do more in the long range, but we’ll see what varieties do well. We’ve talked to some of the researchers here in California, what do you think will be the best chance? Probably some of the highland varieties will do better in colder climates. That will be a driving factor.
Is there an equivalent climate where coffee is grown around the world?
The only way you can make an equivalent is the high mountains. From what I’ve learned, what makes the high mountain coffee so important is the long maturation period of the bean, six, eight months on the tree, where the lower lands, the tropical coffee’s very fast to mature. So what makes Santa Barbara, California, coffee so unique is the maturation of the bean on the tree will be 10 months to a year, so it’s sitting there and developing the flavors that makes a good bean. That’s very unique to this climate.
Do you grow it organic?
Everything’s certified organic. We’re legitimately organic. That’s very important to us.
Is your coffee here tonight?
I don’t have our coffee here tonight. We’re almost out. We just got approval to sell cups of coffee at the farmers market, from our stand. That was actually a time consuming process. It took awhile, but we’re very happy to be the first in California to do that. It’s a practice that was done at the farmers markets in Hawaii all the time. I have just a couple dozen pounds left. We’re going to sell through the farmers markets and try to develop that market.
Do you offer blends, or single varietals?
Right now it’s Cattura and Typica blends.
What do you call it?
We just call it Good Lands Organics coffee right now. We’re getting there to what types of beans, but we’re going to produce 200 pounds of dried beans this year. Again, this is a trial process. I try not to get over ambitious in terms of publicity and getting it out there. Again, it’s part of what I see as a feasibility study, what I call developing the groundwork for the hard work ahead. We’ll see in the next 10 years. Hopefully there will be other growers at the farmers markets, or we can form a big cooperative to have Santa Barbara coffee. It has true potential in this region.
So you’re sharing the seeds with other farms nearby?
Yeah. We’ve grown 12 different varieties of saplings, and we’re going to different farms that have the potential in terms of region and the know how to plant a handful of each of these varieties. Then over the next five years, study them in terms of growth, in terms of productivity and flavor to try and quantify this. It’s one for me to say, “Hey, this is a great crop,” but we need quantifiable evidence to say that’s going to work. So there’s a next stage of the feasibility study.
What town are you in, and what elevation are you at?
We’re just outside Goleta, so Santa Barbara County. We grow at an elevation of about 600 feet, about two miles back from the ocean.
What are the unique challenges in growing coffee?
The unique challenges, crop establishment, finding the window of growing and thinning the ground so it can get large enough to do well in the winter. Obviously propagation was a challenge in itself, getting the seeds to germinate. Post-harvest is quite a challenge. It’s a lot more labor intensive. All through the process there are challenges. Even making a cup of coffee at the farmers markets.
Where did you buy the original seeds from?
They were given to me by Mark Gaskell. He brought them back from one of his journeys to South America, where he was working. They’re Typica and Cattura, which are two of the more famous coffee varieties out there.
Have you had much coverage of your coffee growing in the media?
At an increasing rate. This year coverage has really taken off. David Karp did a story in the LA Times and kind of planted the seed for other stories to come out. Again, for me, I was just kind of laying low and not making too much publicity until I knew it had potential. It’s one of those things, you don’t want to sabotage yourself. You want to be able to say, “We’ve had some good results and I’m looking forward to the future of coffee.”