How much are coffee beans worth? Depends on who you ask.
Agriculture in the United States has been in decline for years, and San Diego is no exception. But according to the city of San Diego’s 2018 annual agriculture report, it’s still a billion dollar industry that encompasses nearly 6,000 farms. The majority of these farms focus on crops like flowers and fruits, but as water and land costs rise, diversifying output has become a necessity to not only thrive, but simply survive.
“All San Diego farmers face a variety of issues that make farming a challenge, such as the high cost of land, shortage of labor, high cost of water and duplicative regulations,” says Hannah Gbeh, Executive Director of the San Diego Farm Bureau. “As a result of these constraints, our local farming community has adapted to do more with less. One of these adaptations is to shift from traditional crops to high value specialty or niche crops, such as coffee.”
How Coffee Came To California
Coffee growing has historically been relegated to higher altitude climates with well-defined rainy and dry seasons. The highest point in San Diego county is 6,535 feet above sea level, but on average, the region falls well below the typical altitude for most global coffee farms. That hasn’t stopped enterprising farmers looking to diversify.
Avocados make up the biggest amount of acreage planted in San Diego. They happen to be the ideal companion for intercropping with coffee trees.
“Just the existence of a new crop, that diversification helps sustain the last bit of California agriculture left,” explains Lindsey Mesta, co-founder and chief marketing officer for Frinj Coffee, Inc.
Since the early 2000s, Frinj has led — if not wholly invented — the California craft coffee movement. Frinj onboarded 50 farms to their program since incorporating in 2017, allowing farmers to maintain autonomy of growing while Frinj manages the processing side. (Mesta refers to this arrangement as “if they plant, we’ll process.”)
Several of these farms are in San Diego, including Mraz Family Farms in Oceanside, which is owned by Grammy-winner Jason Mraz.
Growing coffee in a relatively untested environment requires a staggering amount of experimentation, risk, and of course, cost, which is reflected in the pricing.
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters sells 8 ounces of its Laurina Natural varietal from Colombia for $30. By comparison, Frinj’s California-grown Cuicateco varietal goes for $100 for 200 grams. Despite the high price tag, their stock still sold out within two hours.
Even more staggering are the Mraz-grown Geisha beans, which sold out in three days at $199 for 4 ounces.
The five Frinj farms in San Diego grow multiple varietals, including Caturra Rojo and Typica. In coffee, the varietal itself, as well as the roasting process, ultimately dictates much of the final flavor, and according to Jeff Taylor, co-owner of Bird Rock, Geisha is the best of the best of California beans.
This is the first year any San Diego coffee farms have yielded a crop, and the price might not always be so astronomical. Yet, despite sticker shock for casual coffee consumers, Taylor sees the demand for locally-grown coffee.
“I’m not trying to be a mass market for every consumer. We just need that special niche who’s willing to pay the price,” he explains. It’s going to be a work-in-progress to find the balance of high quality, high prices, and desire to support local.
“It’s overwhelming,” admits Mesta when asked about consumer education. “You [as a consumer] can’t know everything about every farm and everything you’re buying. But it becomes an awareness… and if it [identifying locally grown food] becomes a standard, it has success.”
As locally-grown coffee becomes more mainstream and production is finessed on a larger scale, San Diego farmers can expect coffee to become a more viable (and sustainable) source of income.
The Question Of Sustainability
The carbon footprint of food’s journey from farm to table increases the further food has to travel before consumption. The smaller the distance, the smaller the footprint. That said, sustainability isn’t always easily defined.
Mesta confirms that since every farm working with Frinj already has individual systems in place, it would be prohibitive to stipulate certain measures like adding solar panels or irrigation as one-size-fits-all requirements.
Coffee grown outside of areas with dedicated rainy seasons requires massive amounts of water, which California already has in short supply. Add that to temperatures increasing year-over-year and ocean levels rising, and it’s unlikely San Diego agriculture will escape the harsh effects of climate change.
In a strange twist of fate, the California coffee industry may only exist thanks to climate change. Mesta is quick to point out that erratic weather patterns are a huge fear for growers of any kind. But without mass regional weather changes over the past few decades, the challenges to growing coffee in Southern California may have proven to be insurmountable.
If San Diego farmers were to solely pursue coffee cultivation rather than using it as an additional crop resource on existing land, the benefits may not outweigh the costs. But as it stands today, California-grown coffee may provide just enough buzz to keep the struggling industry afloat.
Gbeh is hopeful for the future of California coffee and farming in general. “California agricultural has been regulated to a place where we offer some of the most environmentally friendly agricultural operations in the world, in addition to offering some of the highest quality working conditions for our farmworkers. Many traditional coffee growing regions do not offer these environmental or socioeconomic benefits. Consumers should take comfort in purchasing California grown agricultural products, as we are leaders in our industry.”
The Future Of California Coffee
“Agriculture is part of the soul of San Diego,” says Mestra. “It would be a shame to lose it.”
San Diego farmers are up against formidable odds like weather, water, and disappearing availability of land. But Mesta thinks the work local coffee farmers put in today could incentivize the next generation to invest their own futures in the land, in a similar way to the renaissances of wine cultivation.
Currently, the average age of San Diego farmers is 62 years old, so a generational shift is not only inevitable, but necessary.
“Coffee is exciting… I think it will actually spark interest in younger generations supporting it,” says Mesta. “It becomes part of their identity, becoming a craft for everyone. There’s real satisfaction growing your own [crops].”
What about taste? “It’ll vary depending on variety. Varietal does more [to affect taste] than terroir; terroir is exclusivity and rareness, but you can achieve similar things from different terroir with the same varietal. We’re still figuring it out,” laughs Jeff Taylor. “But I believe with Geisha, we grow as good as Hawaii, if not better.”
It’ll still be a few years before the true “San Diego flavor” starts to form, but connoisseurs are already watching very closely.
Gheh believes this is just the beginning. “As long as there is a consumer demand for high quality coffee, and an associated price point that makes sense, you will see more farmers exploring this niche crop.”