Avocado Trees Are Helping Make U.S.-Grown Coffee a Thing

Caffeine and guacamole are growing side by side on an experimental California farm.

(Photo: Rod Pforr/Getty Images)

Mar 11, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Even the most dedicated locavores allow for certain exemptions to the however-many-miles diet they’ve committed to eating. For most people living in the continental United States, finding sugar made from locally grown cane is an impossibility. Same goes for coffee and tea. Even if all of your fruits, vegetables, meat, and grains are grown right next door, your morning (and midafternoon) caffeine fix likely was grown abroad.

Save for the Kona coffee grown in Hawaii, the U.S. imports all its coffee. The plants are native to Africa, in and around Ethiopia, but coffee farming is spread across the global south. Brazil leads world production in green coffee, followed by Vietnam, Indonesia, and Colombia, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Arabica coffee, preferred by high-end coffee roasters, is grown mostly in Latin America and eastern Africa. Robusta coffee, considered lower quality and used largely in instant blends, is largely grown in Vietnam, Brazil, Indonesia, and India.

Coffee plants growing beneath avocado trees outside Santa Barbara.

It’s an agricultural reality that undercuts all of the marketing for “locally roasted” coffee. But a specialty farmer in Santa Barbara, California, is trying to change that status quo by proving that coffee can be successfully grown in the continental U.S., not just in the tropics. Jay Ruskey owns Good Land Organics, where he grows cherimoyas, dragon fruit, avocados, caviar limes—and coffee.

It all began when specialty crops adviser Mark Gaskell with the University of California’s division of agriculture and natural resources approached Ruskey in 2001 with the idea of growing coffee. They started experimenting with the crop, and not always with great success.

One of the chief problems for California coffee is water. Most of the coffee grown in the world is dry farmed, relying mainly on tropical rains, more than 100 inches a year, to grow. Santa Barbara gets an average of about 20 inches a year—and that’s when the state isn’t in a four-year drought.

Ruskey stuck with coffee, working with Gaskell on different ways to grow it, until they had a eureka moment: Plant the shrubs right next to the avocado trees on the farm, so the coffee benefits from the trees’ shade and uses the same irrigation and other inputs. Not only is Ruskey growing the only commercial coffee crop in the country, but he’s doing it without using any additional land, water, or fertilizer.

“I went through lots of cycles of plantings and looked at options for using unused land,” he said. “Interplanting works for a lot of reasons, and coffee fits perfectly with avocados because it has similar nutrition requirements.”

The symbiotic relationship between coffee and avocados may be new, but interplanting has been successful over the ages for lots of other plants, such as sun-worshiping tomatoes and shade-loving lettuce, deep-rooted carrots and subsurface beets, and hungry corn and soil-enhancing beans.

“My job is to help small farms with problem solving, so I’m always looking for these kinds of synergies,” Gaskell said of the interplanting technique. “Commercial water rates are high, so ‘How are we going to get the most efficient utilization of land and water?’ is at the back of every grower’s mind.”

Which is why Ruskey is excited not only by the prospect of coffee, but also about mixing crops in general; he’s planning to try a variety of combinations to find other synergies and ways of conserving water and other resources.

He also sells coffee-plant starters to other avocado farmers and travels to farm conferences to talk up the potential of interplanting coffee, all in the hopes of increasing the amount of coffee grown in the state and to establish a premium brand.

Once he gained experience and arrived at interplanting as the best option, things began to take off. When Ruskey finally had a sizable harvest, he began by selling the coffee at farmers markets. As his harvest grew, he began getting inquiries from specialty buyers, who would pay upwards of $60 a pound.

Good Land Organics is selling several hundred pounds of green and roasted beans harvested from its 2,200 plants to clients in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. It’s small-scale when compared with the major coffee producers in the world, but Coffee Review rated Ruskey’s coffee among the top 30 in the world in 2014, putting his beans on the international coffee map. That’s when he knew the experiment was working.

“Our coffee cherries are on the plant longer than almost anywhere in the world, so that gives us that flavor,” Ruskey said. “In the tropics, they slow down the coffee bean growth by planting them in shade or in higher elevations, where it’s cooler. We are able to do this easily because of our cooler climate here.” He offers coffee tours on his farm to show people that it’s not a gimmick but reality.

Coffee Review’s top ranking of Good Land Organics’ beans has made coffee associations elsewhere sit up and take notice of the potential for a high-quality, domestic crop. “All of a sudden I’m thrown into the spotlight of the coffee world because I’m a disruption, which is something it needs, because it does not have a lot of research going on, like with other crops,” Ruskey said.

But despite all the growing hype, Ruskey insists he is still just a small farmer: “Fame is not fortune.”