$16/Cup of California-Grown Coffee

My last post was about farming, sustainability, and privilege, which segues nicely to today’s topic. Last year I read a San Francisco Magazine article, “Could Coffee Be California’s Next Cash Crop?” The coffee farmer, Jay Ruskey, in Goleta (near Santa Barbara) isn’t too far from the Biggest Little Farm. The California coffee growing madness has spread to San Diego County via Frinj, the company formed by Ruskey and partners to “provide California farmers an opportunity to diversify their farm portfolios.”

This seems a bit crazy to me since these areas don’t have much rain. There is no way you could dry farm coffee in these areas (not that they say they’re dry farming). Water is a very precious resource in California, and in the areas they’re talking about growing coffee, there might be an inch of rain, total, between April and October.

When I searched to see what recent news I could find, I found this online article, “The Birth of a Coffee Industry in California,” including a beautiful, romantic photographic series. There wasn’t really any new news, but there was an even nicer package to the story. Frinj has a slick website, but there isn’t any product for sale. In the San Diego news in March, they stated that Bird Rock Coffee Roasters had a pound of coffee for sale for $100, but the link showed it was $100 for 200 grams, not a pound, but about 7 ounces; that’s about $229/pound. The link is still sitting there, accessible directly, but you can’t reach it from the Bird Rock website.

We went to the San Francisco Coffee Festival a week ago, my first festival other than the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. I’m trying to better understand the coffee ecosystem. The festivals are different beasts altogether. The Kona Coffee Cultural Festival started in 1970(!), before the time of third-wave coffee urbanites, is heavy on the culture, lasts 10 days, and is very community based and chill. My impressions in SF were that it was super popular; there were a lot of roasters there; oat milk is the new, hot thing; and we saw a lot of Chemex and other pourover equipment in use to provide tastings. We saw only one Kona coffee stand, and I was surprised that they were offering their tastings in large pump thermoses (I don’t think they did their product justice when the other roasters were making fresh, small batch tastings).

I was excited to see that Bird Rock Coffee Roasters had a stand, since I was already working on this blog post. After tasting two delicious coffees of theirs (I forgot from exactly where since I didn’t write them down), I chatted with our helper, who turned out to be their Creative Director. I asked about the California coffee availability, price, etc. It sells out really quickly because they have a very limited supply (18 pounds?), and it IS that expensive, if not more. He ran through some numbers (cherry, green, roasted), and I thought I caught some conclusion of $225 for four ounces and someone from Dubai buying it. What??!!

Back to my internet searching … in general, I mostly found a lot of articles around 2018 about the fact that there IS coffee grown in California, and Blue Bottle sold it for a lot of money. In this Blue Bottle blog post, “Sustainable Coffee Farming, Right Here in California,” from the days of the media push, “Jay hopes someday to make California a sustainable coffee growing region.” Really?!! What’s he smoking?!! What else is he growing on that farm? Or are they counting on selling roasted coffee on the order of $200+/pound or unroasted beans to Blue Bottle for $65/pound, who then sells pour-overs at $16/cup? Lead me to THAT market!!

I would be thrilled if they were successful with their sustainable California coffee dream. And I would love it, too, if the Biggest Little Farm will continue on, sustainable from the farm, not a successful film.

Note: in the background of the featured image for this posting is Bea’s coffee tree growing in California. Anyone want to buy her California-grown coffee cherry? It takes about 9 pounds of cherry to make one pound of roasted beans, so $200/pound roasted would be about $22/pound cherry.

The Privilege of Farming

We recently watched the feel-good, inspirational film The Biggest Little Farm. Our friend told us about a free screening of the movie. And coincidentally, days before the screening, I shared with a remote work colleague I had just then met by phone and email, that we have a coffee farm. She asked if I had heard about the film and said it’s her favorite film ever. Wow. I was even more excited to see it.

It’s an engrossing, well-told story, full of emotion and personal drama. Sadly, the farm in Moorpark, CA, is yet again, today, at risk of wildfires, though they don’t have to evacuate. Their “little” farm is about 200 acres. (I guess that makes our three acre farm a miniature farm.) You care about the couple/farmers, their animals, the fruit (literal and figurative) of their farm. You want them to succeed. To me, the turning point was when the filmmaker and farmer, John, at his most frustrated and defeated time in the film, has the epiphany that he has to sit back, not fight it or play whack-a-mole, and just observe. And finally, nature seems to find her balance, and the vision they had, and were sold on by their mentor, begins to come to fruition. It was quite a transformation.

The metamorphosis is amazing, but is the farm sustainable? Does it rely on volunteers and/or passionate, underpaid workers? I stumbled upon a critical review when I tried to see if anything was written about the profitability of the farm; it was titled, “‘The Biggest Little Farm’ Review: Inspiring as Long as You Don’t Think About It Too Much.” I thought the criticism was a bit harsh (“At first blush, it’s an inspiring story about two people striving to revive land devastated by modern farming techniques, but the more we see of the Chesters and the ways they solve each problem they face, the harder it becomes to ignore the sickening sense of privilege that hangs over the whole affair.”)

I have a friend in rural Oregon who, as a favor, though she gets an hourly wage, drives her farmer friend’s produce truck into Portland to deliver to the farm’s various store customers. She says the store employees are always hungry to hear about how things are at the farm. She thinks that life in the city is so urban and removed from nature and our food supply, that city-dwellers yearn to connect somehow to dreams and illusions of pastoral life. Or we might have a fantasy of quitting the 9-to-6 (9-to-9?) office job, picking up and starting a brand new, simple, wholesome, connected-to-nature life … perhaps a farm!

We are privileged to have had the opportunity to take over a coffee farm that has been in the family for three generations. We want to do our best with it. It has taken money to fix it up from its under-loved state, to maintain it, and to get it to produce. We are not yet breaking even. We’ve spent less this year than last year. But where will this go? My concern from the very start is whether it can be sustainable or not. And if it isn’t sustainable, do we want to continue to lose money, to pay, to sell good coffee? There are now so many neglected “feral” coffee farms because coffee is a lot of work for little money, and you have to stay on it. We’ve already seen what happens when you put in minimal work (see images below). Are we as a society destined to only have large, efficient, industrialized farms?

If you’re interested, here are a few links that share a little of the back story to the making of the film: https://www.indiewire.com/2019/05/the-biggest-little-farm-documentary-breakout-1202139364/ and http://frontrowfeatures.com/features/film-features/exclusive-couple-trades-city-life-for-the-joys-and-challenges-of-working-the-land-in-the-biggest-little-farm-26069.html

The farm, Apricot Lane Farms, is biodynamic, a term that I had never really paid all that much attention to. I think I vaguely thought that’s the term (“biodynamique”) for “organic” in French. The first paragraph in Wikipedia says, “Biodynamic agriculture is a form of alternative agriculture very similar to organic farming, but it includes various esoteric concepts drawn from the ideas of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Initially developed in 1924, it was the first of the organic agriculture movements. It treats soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care as ecologically interrelated tasks, emphasizing spiritual and mystical perspectives.” “Biodynamic Farming is on the Rise …” is a nice article about Apricot Lane Farms & biodynamic farming.

It reminds me of an interesting article I read early this year in Ke Ola Magazine “The Cultivating Life: Agroforestry Expert Craig Elevitch.”

Agroforestry is intentionally putting plants, and sometimes animals, together and managing them to enhance productivity, improve soils, sequester carbon, as well as enhance biodiversity. 

Family farms mix cash crops (like coffee) with growing food for themselves. We have banana, papaya, pineapple, macadamia nuts, avocado, lychee, mango, guava, but we’ve had to remove many of our other fruit-bearing trees as we’re doing some rebuilding. We have ideas of other plants we want to grow (ulu/breadfruit, purple potato, jaboticaba, calamondin, vanilla bean, cacao, dragon fruit, star fruit, …). Chickens and eggs might be nice. And bees. Bea’s bees?

Rain is Grace

Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.      

John Updike

As I looked to the wise Internet for ideas for a title for this post, I learned that there are over 200 words for rain in the Hawaiian language.

When is Kona’s rainy season? Roughly April-October. In other words, summer, plus and minus. Summer is often the drier season on most of the same island and the rest of the Hawaiian islands. There are many micro-climates on the island, and rain is very localized. It isn’t at all uncommon that you are sitting under a rain cloud, and one mile away, it’s dry and the sun is shining.

It has been raining daily, usually in the late afternoon or night, sometimes HARD. And all that water? It just goes into the ground! It’s not muddy or full of puddles. There aren’t little streams or erosion through the land. Lava rock is amazing. For one thing, we don’t have a lot of loose topsoil. The land is rocky with a light layer of soil on top. Once the sun is out for a while, you don’t see much evidence of all the rain that came down overnight. It’s this reliable rain and sun that allows us to farm without irrigating. But the climate has been changing, and there have been many years of severe drought. No drought here this year, though; it has been a good year for rain. And the trees are producing!

At the end of September, we’ve already picked more coffee than all of last season. And we’ve already picked another round in October and have more upcoming. This will be a good year for us. This newspaper article from a month ago describes well the rain and coffee situation. And this WHT article from yesterday talks about rain and all the many micro-climates on Hawaii island.

The parchment for our first large picking has dried for just over 60 days now, so soon it will be dry milled and we’ll be able to offer roasted coffee again. Season 2 for Bea’s Knees Farm.

Maika’i; A’ole Maika’i

Maika’i means good. A’ole means no. A’ole maika’i = not good.

Our land is in the process of being restored. We’ve come far in under a year and a half. But there’s still room for improvement. Below are two short slideshows.


A’ole Maika’i