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September 21, 2021
San Diego farmer Chris Bailey has had to think long and hard about how to sustain his family’s 40-acre citrus and avocado farm into the future. Amidst raging wildfires, heat waves, and drought, he is facing very different circumstances than his grandfather did when he began growing there nearly two decades ago.
“Water’s a precious resource, but it’s also expensive,” he says. “I think about whether or not the water will get so expensive that [we] aren’t able to afford to continue.”
A drought in 2015 forced Bailey to cut his farm’s water usage by 25 percent. Since then, he’s tried to find ways to adapt to a future of scarce water with a sky-high price tag. One potential solution in his toolbox: the 10 acres of sprouting Geisha and Catuai Rojo coffee trees he planted two years ago. The trees, which he says require the same amount of water as his avocados, will mature over the next two to three years before producing coffee beans he hopes to sell at a premium to help offset some of his irrigation costs.
“These days, you can’t just say, ‘What works for me now will work in 10 years,’ because that’s not the reality,” Bailey says. “I think you can learn a lot when you push boundaries and shake up the status quo.”
Coffee farming in California has been something unheard of—an anomaly at most—as coffee is traditionally grown in tropical, humid climates throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. But Bailey is part of an emerging group of growers who in recent years have been populating the state’s southern region under a brand named FRINJ coffee.
Jay Ruskey, the seasoned agriculturalist behind FRINJ, discovered the potential for coffee in California after inter-planting coffee trees with his Hass avocados on the hills of his farm in Goleta, near Santa Barbara, as an experiment nearly 20 years ago. The result—sustainably grown, flavor-rich beans—inspired him to establish a domestic coffee market in North America that focuses on the journey from crop to cup.
Since 2015, the farmers working with the brand have planted more than 100,000 coffee trees on more than 70 farms located in San Diego, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. Their trademark crops consist of specialty Arabica varieties like Geisha, Cuicateco, Laurina, Mundo Novo, Pacamar, and Caturra Rojo.
A number of factors make California an attractive place to grow coffee. First, it has a drier climate that has made it immune to the devastating coffee rust fungus seen in tropical regions. Second, the farms are located further from the equator, which means the coffee beans take longer to ripen; the flower-to-harvest period lasts 10–12 months, which is roughly two to four months longer than coffee grown in other regions. Because there is more time for the plants to mature, the taste of the coffee, Ruskey says, is more “defined.”
Carrying the hefty price tag of $160 to $256 per pound, FRINJ targets locavore consumers who can spend a lot on coffee and care about local agriculture, Ruskey says. Though right now it is only sold through the company’s website, he says he sees a potential to expand the market and build an experience around the product, similar to how the wine industry offers tours and tastings at vineyards. In contrast to conventional markets where the majority of farmers aren’t paid a living wage, Ruskey says another reason for developing FRINJ was to shift views around compensating coffee farmers fairly.
“To have [a] cup of coffee, that farmer has to hand-pick beans at the perfect ripeness, turn the coffee four or five times a day, dry it for a week, go through special fermentation, and roast it just the right way,” Ruskey says. “We want people to think about the things that it takes to make a good quality cup of coffee and all the people involved.”
Ruskey offers growers half the sales value of their crop. The company provides farmers with seed varieties of their choice, extension services for guidance on growing practices, and help finding harvesters. Sales and post-harvest processes are handled by FRINJ—the company has one wet mill in Goleta and one in northern San Diego County.
Still, agriculture experts remain torn on whether a drought-stricken state should be using water resources to fuel production of premium coffee.
California’s Mediterranean climate has supported the state’s long legacy as an agricultural powerhouse. The state produces more than 400 commodities—40 percent of all organic production in the U.S. and more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two thirds of its fruits and nuts—according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
At the same time, the entire state is currently plagued by water scarcity, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center’s map for California. Recent studies have also projected a 20 to 40 percent decline in production for crops such as grapes, oranges, walnuts, avocados, and almonds by 2070 due to the impacts of climate change.
Compared to a crop with a water-intensive reputation like almonds, coffee takes considerably more H2O—in fact, nearly double. Seven grams of roasted beans take on average 130 liters of water. Available estimates for almonds show an average water intake of approximately 56.76 liters of water per seven grams. This would amount to 520 liters of water per one ounce of coffee beans and 227 liters of water per one ounce of whole almonds.
Though coffee farmers traditionally rely predominately on rainfall, in California’s drier climate, coffee growers have to rely mostly on irrigation. This means dipping into canals and other surface waterways, which have shrunk to some of their lowest levels on record, or groundwater aquifers, which are increasingly running dry and leaving some in the state without a drinking water supply.
Ruskey encourages growers to put water-conserving practices into place and says based on the layered systems he’s engineered, growing one acre of coffee takes about the same amount of water as growing one acre of avocados—or about three to four acre feet of water (or 978,000 to 1.3 million gallons) per acre per year, depending on soil type and annual rainfall.
His scheme, which he welcomes farmers to replicate, uses avocado trees as a canopy crop, with passion fruit and dragon fruit vines growing up the base and rows of the trees. More generally, he says, farmers are encouraged to incorporate windbreaks, shade trees, and other plants to increase the water holding capacity of the soil.
Ruskey isn’t sure whether his trees use less water than those in traditional coffee growing regions, which have much more rainfall. However, he says that one benefit to growing coffee trees in California is that farmers don’t have to grapple with coffee leaf rust. This fungus thrives in wetter, more humid regions and has devastated many smallholder farmers. From 2012 to 2017 alone, the disease caused more than $3 billion in damage and lost profits and forced almost two million farmers across Central and South America to abandon their land.
Experts in hydrology, such as Josué Medellin-Azuara of the University of California, Merced, say that if California farmers want to add this crop to their repertoire, it is possible. An associate professor with the university’s Water Systems Management Lab, Medellin-Azuara notes that the state has had a long history of juggling consumption from a variety of water sources near and far. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges.
“There is no such thing as normal years anymore, unfortunately,” he says. “Drought conditions this year have been very severe, and the phenomenon of drought is recurrent. You might see good years, but then you’ll see very dry years. It’s constant whiplash.”
Medellin-Azuara says that the highest risks around water access remain in the agricultural Central Valley. However, cutbacks in southern regions are either already happening or will likely happen soon, thanks in part to implementation of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which will place new limits on limit groundwater pumping beginning next year.
Noting the unpredictability of rainfall everywhere due to climate change, Medellin-Azuara says it would be wise for coffee producers, no matter where they are, to implement low-volume irrigation systems.
What stands out to Medellin-Azuara though is how little is known or published about coffee’s impact on California’s ecosystems. This includes specific water requirements based on factors including elevation, soil, precipitation, and overall climate. For all these reasons, he believes further research is needed.
Other voices in agriculture say that the story of FRINJ coffee bleeds into ethical and philosophical territory. Nicole Lefore, director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation, says there is a larger issue of inequity at play in the conversation about California coffee.
“I think it’s important to ask, ‘Why use a scarce water resource in California to produce coffee that’s for a very elite market, but not pay a living wage for someone in Africa or Central America where coffee is really suited for production?’” she says. “From a natural resource perspective, you can start losing sight of the fact that resources like water, though they’re local, are also within a global system.”
Increasingly, Lefore says, academics and policymakers in global food systems have been prioritizing nutritional security. For that reason, coffee may be seen as a use that is secondary to food as water and soil nutrients become less available down the line due to climate change.
Despite these challenges, Ruskey hopes to provide farmers with a way to support their farms and protect their livelihoods. He says he has also thought about what role drought or severe climate will play in shaping the industry, so he’s been working with a team of crop engineers under FRINJ to develop varieties that are drought, wind, and frost resistant.
“I see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I have to keep pushing to make this successful,” he says. “There are a lot of farmers out there who look at FRINJ as a guiding light, so I’m driven to help keep that light shining bright.”
In addition to creating systems that stand up to the looming threat of climate change, he’s also been trying to draw greater awareness for the emerging market, he says.
And Bailey, who is bracing for more water cutbacks next year, says he’s grateful to have made contact with Ruskey. Armed with soil sensors and inline drip emitters for water efficiency, Bailey continues to look for ways to adapt to what’s ahead.
If he’s able to produce a premium product, he says he’s willing to expand his coffee production. And while he still has a few years before he hits his stride, he’s optimistic that California coffee can be one piece of his plan to keep his family’s farm alive.
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