Can California Be Truly Self-Sustaining?
Some coffee growers say yes
About five years ago, I had to go on an elimination diet. My belly was in knots. I was ill constantly. Something needed to change. At my doctor’s advice, I basically cut every food or drink that could bring joy from my life. I subsisted on vegan soups and stews, salted avocados, a fake coffee made from chicory, and sadness. When I was finally allowed to slowly reintroduce one food at a time, my first choice (over sugar, cheese, umami anything, oil) was coffee. Dark chocolate was next, followed closely by wine. Don’t judge—a girl’s gotta have priorities.
A few weeks after I reintroduced my morning caffeine jolt to my life, I went to meet UCSC sustainability professor, Katie Monsen for coffee in the redwoods. My students had been growing aggro about the ecology peppering my writing class. They were so frustrated with the news of how our climate crisis was predicted to dry up our food systems that they started to shut down. I figured talking to someone who taught agroecology (the study of the natural way of growing food) might help me find new ways to educate my students.
Katie offered plenty of tangible advice—take them out to the field, get them learning experientially, start growing your own food. But as she sipped her coffee, I asked her how she can reconcile with educating young people about sustainability, while also being an avid coffee drinker. She laughed and said she was also an avid chocolate fan and had no plans of giving up either just because they weren’t sustainable.
For weeks I thought about how a Californian like me might reconcile with my own affection for coffee and chocolate. Even just buying organic, or shade grown, or single origin from a reputable seller meant that my vices were most often traveling from Central America or central Africa to Europe then back to me. That’s farther than the average American has ever traveled.
And coffee is a ridiculously labor-intensive crop. Cherries have to be hand-picked, then the bean has to be squeezed out, dried, shelled, dried again, shelled again, sorted, sifted, sorted again, then you have to do a little dance (just seeing if you’re following). All before you even begin the roasting process. Again, this is all by hand.
As I sipped my latte, I couldn’t help but wonder if, as a California resident, I’d ever feel good about the footprint of my cup of joe.
Growing coffee in an unlikely place
When I heard that someone was growing coffee in California, I thought I’d found my revolutionary answer. I went to Goleta to meet Jay Ruskey, a Goleta farmer who has been experimenting with coffee growing for twenty years. Today, Jay Ruskey, co-founder, CEO and lead farmer of FRINJ Coffee, is growing organic California-grown beans, and paying workers and farmers a living wage.
As he served me a pour over fit for Beyonce, he reminded me that this wasn’t my aunt’s Folgers. They aren’t even the beans you know from Starbucks, or even your local fourth wave cafe. Jay’s geisha and caturra beans are meant to be a ceremonial beverage, and not just because of their jaw-dropping price (just 5 ounces of beans cost $50-$80). He said fine coffee, like fine wine, is meant to be experienced, not turned into a vessel for sugar, syrups and oat milk.
He urged me to first smell the layers of complexity. As I inhaled the lemony earthy aroma, he added that good coffee, sourced from single origin, perfectly roasted, scientifically ground and then poured into the ideal container is more like tea than the coffee we currently know. The high end coffee Jay’s growing isn’t meant to be the jolt I need to make my kids’ lunches every morning.
While most Californians have come to understand that the good things in life cost way more money than we ever want to pay, are we ready to fork over $150 for a pound of joe? While Jay and the other 74 farmers growing beans for FRINJ wish they could hawk affordable beans for that morning brew, right now, they are focused on the art of growing the perfect bean. They’re hoping to change our relationship with coffee and start a new conversation. And they’re giving Californians who come to sample his pour overs at his Good Land Organics Farm the chance to feel smug about the footprint of that beverage.
Following climate scientists and farmers’ lead
Every morning when I drink the latte my sweet partner makes for me, I think of those rolling Goleta hills over UC Santa Barbara, wishing I could afford to actually drink coffee grown locally. For now, I’ll have to save that dream for my fiftieth birthday party, and instead follow the lead of the climate scientists whose actions seem to proclaim that we shouldn’t let our urge to be perfect get in the way of the good. The coffee I drink today is certified fair trade, organic, and is single origin. I can learn about the family who grows those beans through my local coffee roaster. While this is certainly not what I wish for, at the moment, this is the best I can do without completely sacrificing my morning ritual beverage.
I hope this changes. But until that time, unless I want to make my family suffer through my coffee withdraws again, I’ll have do the best with what I have and pick my battles.
This week’s action
This week, try to include as much local produce and goods into your grocery shopping. Many of you get CSA boxes or shop at the farmer’s market already. See if there is one new local product you can add to the mix. If you have the choice of purchasing strawberries from a nearby farm or some carted in from Mexico, pick local. I recently found a California grown sushi rice. I’ve heard there’s a guy in Santa Barbara growing chocolate. My eyes are open. Are yours?
Odds and ends
I took the last month off social media and newsletter writing. In reevaluating my relationship to my constant need to produce content, I’ve decided to continue to send you little letters of support and action, but less regularly.
Here’s a piece I recently wrote for Outside
Until next time…