A Cupful of Cherries


Locally Grown Organic Coffee

By Nancy Oster

Photography by Fran Collin

I’m anticipating one last cup of coffee at 9pm on September 30… maybe a decaf. The Eat Local Challenge begins at midnight and lasts throughout the month of October. 

A whole month without coffee? Maybe an occasional cup of Costa Rican or Ethiopian coffee made from beans roasted in Santa Barbara?

goodlandorganicsFor the past three years as we approached the October challenge, the issue of coffee has come up frequently in discussions with fellow locavores about what is local and what is not. Generally we’ve agreed that locally roasted would be better than no coffee but technically we were stretching the definition of “local.” So the news that Good Land Organics is growing coffee only 14 miles from my house came as a welcome surprise. A search of the website revealed that they offer educational coffee tours with coffee tasting and the opportunity to purchase organic locally grown and roasted coffee. There’s hope!

I contacted owner Jay Ruskey about visiting his farm in the Winchester Canyon foothills to learn more about his coffee beans. The coffee tours are part of a coffee-growing feasibility study he is doing with University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor Mark Gaskell. (Mark helped develop our local blueberry industry.)


Does Coffee Grow in Santa Barbara?

Most of the world’s coffee grows between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn,JayatGoodlandOrg approximately 23.5° above and below the equator. Santa Barbara is 34° from the equator. So eight years ago when Jay agreed to work on this project, he didn’t have high expectations. But he decided to give it a try since many other tropical fruits like cherimoya, dragon fruit and passion fruit grow successfully at his location.

Jay planted seedlings Mark had grown from seeds he’d brought back from El Salvador—primarily Caturra and Typica varieties of the Arabica species. There are two species of coffee: Arabica varieties are generally considered more artisanal and grow at higher elevations than the Robusta varieties.

Jay planted the young coffee plants among the aging avocado trees on his 42-acre ranch. Caturra is
a good full-sun variety, but many coffee trees grow more naturally in the shade of a forest canopy. “I just grew them in with the avocados,” Jay says, “some in and some out of the sun. I used the same nutrient program as we use for the avocados.” 

In a few years he saw the first buds and white blossoms appear. “I was still skeptical when I saw blossoms, but then came the berries—wow, another milestone. Then all of sudden we had mature red coffee cherries!” 

The Answer Is Yes, the Question Is Why?

Jay currently has about 700 producing trees and a trial section of about a dozen other varieties he is testing. He has about 100 trees of the Geisha variety, a very old bean from Ethiopia, highly prized as a single-origin coffee and now grown primarily in Panama. Famed coffee farmer Price Peterson, who rediscovered the delicate floral Geisha variety growing on his Hacienda La Esmeralda farm in Panama, personally brought plants here for Jay to try.

handpickingcoffeeOne of the goals of this project is to figure out why these trees that normally grow in tropical highlands at 3,000 to 6,000  feet are thriving at an elevation of only 650 feet, two miles from the ocean. It could be that in the tropics, higher elevations offer cooler night temperatures close to the nights here. Jay’s trees are protected from winds, frost and high heat, but our rainfall and humidity are lower. Irrigation and foggy coastal mornings seem to be supplementing the lack of rainfall and humidity.

Harvesting Ripe Coffee Cherries

Lindsey McManus, Jay’s operations manager, walks with me down the hill into the coffee zone. We are standing in the old avocado orchard among rows of chest-high coffee trees. She reaches out to pick a dark red cherry and hands it to me to taste. She picks another and pops it into her mouth. The cherries taste sweet. At the center are two white seeds. These seeds are what we refer to as coffee beans. We pick more. The deep mahogany-red cherries are sweetest and go into our pail. Lindsey warns me that an unripe cherry can change the flavor of the entire batch.

Jay points to a tree and lifts a branch with nicely spaced coffee cherries. Lindsey is standing next to me. “That is the most beautiful branch I’ve ever seen,” she says. She points out the buds, the white blossoms, green cherries and red cherries all on the same branch. “They usually have to draw pictures to show this.” 

The Science of Sustainable Farming

Jay says, “I don’t know if this is good or bad. There’s no rest period for this tree. It could be stressing the tree too much.” There is little research to fall back on for growing coffee trees at our latitude or elevation. Jay is learning through trial and observation.

While the ample harvest is encouraging, Jay is worried that the trees will have shorter lifespans or inconsistent yield. Some visiting Ethiopian coffee farmers warned him recently that overproduction might drain energy from the trees. 

During the time the beans ripen on the tree, their flavors concentrate and improve. stagesofcoffeebeans
A long maturation period of six to eight months is considered beneficial. But the cherries on Jay’s trees take 10 to 12 months to ripen, so while the flavor of the ripened bean is likely to be superior, the young beans are competing with the maturing beans for nutrients. It’s all about balance.

The good news is that this year’s harvest will be double or maybe even triple the amount harvested last year and the trees still look healthy. Jay will continue to observe his trees as they mature and document the best local growing conditions for these varieties so other farmers can benefit from his experience. De-pulping and Drying the BeansWe return to the barn to process the newly picked cherries, which must be de-pulped within 24 hours. Jay loads them into the hopper of his de-pulper and cranks the handle. The seeds roll out of the cherries and drop into a pan of water. They will remain in the water bath to ferment for 24 to 36 hours. When the stickiness on the outer parchment hulls is gone, the beans are put onto elevated screens to dry for two or more weeks, until they reach the optimum moisture level. Then they sit in the hulls six to eight weeks before being de-hulled and roasted.

De-hulling and Roasting the Beans

Will Stagg arrived at Good Land Organics about five years ago to be Jay’s agricultural technician. Will says, “My job is to make things work.” By that he means keep the equipment running and work alongside Jay to address harvest and post-harvest challenges. One of those challenges has been finding the best way to roast the beans. 

hullingbeansThe green beans are inside the parchment hull, so they are run through a hand-cranked machine that pinches the parchment. A fan blows the light parchment hulls off the beans as they fall into a pan below the de-huller.

The original plan was to ship the green beans to an industrial roaster when the crop got large enough.But they’ve discovered that industrial roasters can’t handle smaller beans. Their beans fall through the roasters’ screens.

This is not high tech, but it works. Will has repaired and rebuilt his small roaster three or four times. One time it caught fire. It takes eight to 10 minutes to roast about a pound of beans. Color, smell, sound of the beans cracking, volume of smoke and release of the burnt silver skin outer coating help Will identify when the roasting is done. He cools the beans by pouring them back and forth between two strainers. These beans are ready for purchase at the end of the tour, or occasionally at the Tuesday or Saturday downtown Santa Barbara farmers markets.

Will prefers a medium roast. Roasted beans have complex flavors often destroyed by darker roasting. There are approximately 800 aromatic compounds in coffee beans, more aromatic flavor components than in wine.

Will It Be Profitable?

Jay says, “There are a lot of people watching and waiting to see if I can make a local coffee crop profitable.” One Arabica tree yields about seven to eight pounds of ripe cherries or about one pound of roasted coffee beans per year. That’s a lot of picking and processing for what seems like a small yield.

But the value of good coffee has increased. Fifteen years ago, people were happy with standard canned grocery store coffee blends, but today they are looking for more from their cup of coffee. Specialty coffees at coffee tastings, called cuppings, have raised the bar for coffee… and the prices. Kona beans currently sell for $30 to $40 a pound and Geisha can sell for over $150 a pound.

Certified organic beans bring a higher price. Pesticide residues concentrate in seeds. Fungicides are commonly used in conventionally grown coffee, so this is a food where organic really makes a difference.

The coffee tours continue to educate people about coffee quality and provide supplemental income to enhance the profit margin. 

Local from Seed to Cup

Studying every aspect of coffee production, Jay gathers seeds from his most successful trees and,dryingcoffeebeans with the help of volunteer Master Gardener Jane Swain, grows seedlings for future plantings on his farm and to share with other farmers. Plants may also be available for purchase on the coffee tour.

At this point there aren’t enough roasted coffee beans for sales manager Elizabeth Edelman to ship coffee to customers, but the online sales of a wide variety of exotic fruits inter-planted with Hass avocados, cherimoyas and citrus will provide an easy path for orders in the future. For now, access to a cup of locally grown coffee will be limited to coffee tours and the occasional farmers market (especially during the month of October).

Plans for the Future

If it becomes clear that coffee is a profitable crop for local farmers, Jay would like to work with other farms to establish a Santa Barbara Coffee Growers Association with a local brand and shared marketing. 

Jay says, “A feasibility study is groundwork for the hard work. I see this as a collaborative process. The coffee market is so large there’s room for everyone.” 

The Scientist Farmer

While I began this article with an interest in local coffee production, I came away with a deeper appreciation for farmers like Jay Ruskey who are willing take the risk of planting experimental crops and then waiting eight or 10 years to find out if they will be economically viable. 

As the excitement over his potential success builds, so does the pressure to succeed. But Jay remains focused on the health of his crops as the observant farmer, recording what he observes, listening to other farmers and sharing what he learns.  




Roasting Coffee

At Good Land Organics, Will Stagg does most of the coffee roasting. He says, “I had to learn to roast to get a cup of coffee from our beans.” Lindsey McManus, the new operations manager, says she is learning a lot from Will, even though she has had her own coffee cart business, worked on a coffee farm in Hawaii and does home coffee roasting for family and friends. Between them, they have a lot of roasting experience.

Roasting your own coffee makes a lot of sense. Will says, “Our great-grandparents roasted their own coffee, probably in a cast-iron skillet on the stove or fire.” He adds, “I’d love to see the world go back to home roasting. After five days your coffee is done, it’s lost its quality and flavor.” In fact, 85% of the aromatic compounds have dissipated.

“You roast to the bean,” Lindsey explains. “It’s important to note the moisture content, density and age of the bean. The goal is to express the origin flavors (usually more subtle) and roast flavors, creating a more complex cup of coffee. Beans of different varieties grown in different regions roasted medium to light, express different nuances in the cup.”

She describes the process Will uses to roast their beans: A rotating drum is heated before he adds the beans. The temperature drops and comes back up as the drum rotates in the hot chamber. Moisture inside the bean converts to steam and breaks the inner walls of the beans, making a cracking sound. Will listens for “first crack,” which indicates that the beans are reaching light roast. The time from first crack to second crack is important. He watches the beans as they turn darker, the silver skin chaff on the beans’ surface begins to burn and fly off and the roaster releases smoke. At “second crack” the inner line under the belly of the bean cracks open. At that point you move into the dark roast range. Will keeps his total roasting time within 8 to 10 minutes. Otherwise the flavors become dull, or “baked.”

When the sound, the smell, the color and the time are all right, Will removes the beans and begins cooling them by pouring them back and forth between strainers. These are medium roast, no charcoal smell or flavor. The darker the roast, the less complex the flavor. Subtle flavors disappear.

Can you do it on the stove? Absolutely. A cast-iron skillet works fine, but you need to keep the beans moving by swirling and flipping beans in the skillet. You’re limited to a handful of beans, but it’s enough coffee to brew up a few cups and really impress your friends.


Take a Tour: Good Land Organics

Tours are held on Saturdays 10am–1pm and include a coffee tasting and walking tour.; 805 685-4189

Recommended Reading:

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast (Basic Books, 2000)


Nancy Oster always thought coffee was an acquired taste until she tasted her son Shaun’s perfectly brewed coffee. Freshly roasted coffee takes even that to a new level. And now she’s developed a taste for coffee cherries as well.



Categories Fall 2012