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Coffee — fresh from California? Cal Poly Pomona brews up a conference for local coffee farmers

Your homebrewed coffee can be homegrown, too, if California coffee farmers have anything to say about it.

“There is a trend in Southern California and throughout the state of California to look at emerging crops as a way for farming to stay viable,” said Professor Valerie Mellano, who heads Cal Poly Pomona’s plant science department.

On Jan. 18, Cal Poly’s Huntley College of Agriculture will bring together those hoping to grow coffee locally at the California Coffee Summit. The university hopes to make it an annual event.

“There are several coffee farmers in the Santa Barbara/ Goleta area and the San Diego area and we are kind of in the middle of those growers,” Mellano said. “And, as an agricultural institution, we felt that it would be appropriate to try to gather the coffee-growing knowledge in one place and see if we can further the crop as something that would be a viable opportunity for growers in the area.”

Coffee could be fit into the farms of some existing California farmers, in the shade of existing avocado trees. The shade of the larger trees helps protect the coffee plants from both the withering heat of the sun but also from frost in the winter. And the coffee plants drink up irrigation water that might otherwise be wasted.

That’s the system that summit speaker Jay Ruskey uses.

“I don’t want people to make the same mistakes I did,” said Ruskey, who has been growing coffee in California since 2002.

He didn’t set out to become a coffee farmer, but was given some plants.

“I put this coffee in with my avocados and just passive-aggressively took care of them.”

But as the coffee market matured and expanded, Ruskey took a second look at the plants growing in the shade of his avocado trees.

“It opened up a market opportunity,” he said. “I came out of the closet as a coffee grower about five years ago and competed in blind tastings and it did well.”

Ruskey’s not alone in growing avocados in California, of course, which means there’s lots of opportunity for more farmers to grow coffee in the state.

“Like avocados, they can’t take frost,” Ruskey said of coffee plants. “So we’re going into avocado areas, where they can survive the winters.”

In addition to Ruskey, industry leaders from Santa Barbara and San Diego Counties will speak at the summit, along with agricultural professionals from the University of California Cooperative Education, University of Hawaii and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Speakers will discuss growing coffee in California, inter-planting coffee with avocado, pesticides and diseases, processing methods, marketing opportunities and varietal trials.

Experiments with multiple types of coffee are underway at Cal Poly Pomona now, with 13 different breeds growing in a cleared field in the midst of the university’s citrus groves. This is not shade-grown coffee: These plants are getting exposed to both the Inland Empire’s summer sun and sometimes frosty winter.

“What you’re looking at here is all cold damage,” said Duncan McKee, instructional support tech at Cal Poly Pomona’s Plant Science Department.

More than half of the knee-high plants had leaves that had turned all or totally purple.

“As a grower, when I came out here after the holiday break, I was devastated, it was just painful to me,” McKee said. “But from a research standpoint, the researchers involved are getting excited, because this is actually showing us which varieties may or may not be more tolerant to cold and frost.”

Coffee is typically grown in higher, warmer altitudes than in the Inland Empire. And in California, most coffee is typically grown closer to the Pacific Coast.

“But we have other plantings of coffee here on campus that have been here 20 to 30 years,” McKee said. “They seem to do OK.”

Cal Poly Pomona’s coffee trial is now in its second year and isn’t expected to have any yield data available for at least two more years. More coffee will likely be planted in the hills surrounding the campus, which should improve the quality of the coffee produced, because the plants won’t be sitting on a flat space where cold air can accumulate.

“It’s only when you introduce shade and elevation that the quality increases,” Ruskey said. “But the downside is that you cool the plant and reduce the yield.”

Much of the coffee Americans drink comes from mountainous regions in South America. But California farmers can compete with that geographic advantage in other ways.

“In California, our latitude makes up for our altitude,” Ruskey said. “We can precisely irrigate them and get precision nutrition. … We can be a lot more precise with our resources here.”

Although California coffee is unlikely to ever be filling up a can of Maxwell House or other commodity coffee, Ruskey thinks there’s an opportunity for California coffee to eventually be something comparable to high-end Kona coffee from Hawaii, following the route that California wineries previously traveled.

“I think we need to continue to support it as a high quality specialty drink, where it gains a high price point of $50 to $60 a pound,” Ruskey said.

The 2018 California Coffee Summit will take place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18, at the AGRIscapes Agricultural Outreach Center at Cal Poly Pomona. Tickets are $75 and are available online at The deadline to register is Friday, Jan. 12.

By Beau Yarbrough

(c)2018 the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, Calif.)

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