Cali Caffeinated

Jay Ruskey grows coffee on the coast. Don’t believe it? Take a tour

Photographs by Angie Smith

In this day of the $6 cup of coffee, when bragging rights mean knowing not only the varietal but the beans’ latitude, anything exotic gets the antennae waving. Which may explain why Jay Ruskey of Good Land Organics (good is inundated with requests to visit his north Santa Barbara County farm, where he is the only person cultivating coffee in California. He’s been turning down the requests—until now. This month the curious can sign up online for an agritour and the chance to see how Ruskey coaxes a plant inextricably tied to Latin America and Africa to flourish on U.S. soil.

The weekend morning outing ($40 per person) starts at the barn high atop Goleta’s Tecolote Canyon, a place so picturesque, it’s worth the drive. The agritourists first partake of a cup of coffee from one of the dozen varietals Ruskey grows—likely a typica with a deep, almost chocolaty flavor. Then they set off down a dirt path past Ruskey’s other big crops—cherimoyas and Australian finger limes—to the coffee bushes thriving on mulch left over from an old avocado orchard. “People have no idea what it takes to bring a cup of coffee to the table,” says Ruskey, referring to the harvesting, processing, and roasting that are all done here on-site. “It’s amazing it’s as inexpensive as it is.”

Ruskey grew up in Los Feliz, where he attended Cheremoya Elementary School (yes, he gets the irony), and Loyola High, where geology classes fueled his interest in an occupation outdoors. By 18 he was working for Dutch flower growers in Carpinteria and majoring in agricultural marketing at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. The coffee-growing experiment is part of the UC small farms initiative, which supplied Ruskey with bushes and an expert, Mark Gaskell, who has worked in Central America. While coffee is normally grown at altitudes approaching thousands of feet, Ruskey’s farm sits at 650. The beans thrive in his coastal canyon largely because of the lack of extreme cold or heat and the low winds. “People thought I was crazy, but less so now,” says Ruskey, who sells three-ounce glass jars of his beans for $6 at the Santa Barbara farmers’ markets. And just wait until he starts harvesting the caturra, a coveted bourbon mutation, or the even rarer geisha, which sells for up to $100 a pound.

He envisions the tour as the start of a bucolic Santa Barbara County day. The newly caffeinated could then head up to Santa Ynez for an afternoon of imbibing local wines. “At least they’ll be bright-eyed,” he says.