Can California Correct Coffee?

One Goleta Farmer’s Fight to Make the Bean Business Better for All

Can California Correct Coffee?

One Goleta Farmer’s Fight to Make the Bean Business Better for All

By Matt Kettmann | November 4, 2021

Credit: Macduff Everton

When Jay Ruskey the farmer started talking like Jay Ruskey the tech entrepreneur one morning last June, I started wondering whether he’d put something else in my coffee. He’d just brewed us a batch from beans grown at his farm, Good Land Organics, where I was expecting to get a brief update on how he was still managing to eke out an existence in the exotic fruit trade. Ruskey had just launched a new series of farm tours, which I assumed was the latest part of his continued preaching about the wonders of California-grown coffee to an audience afraid of its high cost. 

But then he’s saying things like “Series A funding” and “genome sequencing” and “vertical integration” and casually mentioning that now more than 70 farms across Southern California are growing beans to fuel his growing company, Frinj Coffee. I got a little jittery, and not just from the coffee. 

Ruskey, I quickly realized, was no longer just a small-time organic farmer exploring obscure fruits like caviar lime, lychee, and longan up a dead-end road on the western edge of Goleta. He was inventing an entirely new California industry, completely from scratch, and one that ultimately aims to add resilience to agriculture in a changing climate and challenge coffee’s status quo, which may be the most exploitive commodity market on the planet. And he’s doing it all at light speed. 

TEAM RUSKEY: Jay and Kristen Ruskey have always grown interesting fruits but decided to go all-in on coffee in 2017. “I don’t know if there is coffee with more care on the planet than Frinj right now,” said Jay Ruskey, who works with more than 70 farms across Southern California now. | Credit: Macduff Everton

“The California wine industry developed over the centuries,” explained Ruskey, who sees countless parallels between the fine wine and high-end coffee markets. “This is putting that on a micro time scale, like running a mile in 10 steps.”

I first met Kristen and Jay Ruskey at a swanky media dinner nearly a decade ago, when he was better known as the guy who proved that caviar limes​ — a spiky shrub from the Australian bush also known as finger limes​ — could fetch a rewarding price for California farmers. (I now grow one in my backyard.) He’d done the same for dragon fruit and also had success with cherimoya, while other species, such as lychee, longan, and goji berry, didn’t seem as promising. He was also growing coffee at that time, which I covered in a 2014 article that I wrote called “Farming the Fringe.” (And yes, I’m proud to report that the headline did inspire the name of his coffee brand.)

Though he’d planted his first coffee bush nearly two decades earlier, around 2000, the beans remained just part of what Ruskey did until 2017. That’s the year it finally rained again​ — on March 27, Lake Cachuma went from 6.3 percent capacity to 63 percent — so he planted coffee at 18 more farms from Santa Barbara to San Diego. That’s also the year the coffee bean’s genome was sequenced for the first time, using one of his plants. And then came the Whittier Fire that summer, which Good Land Organics narrowly escaped on July 14, Ruskey’s birthday. “All right,” thought Ruskey that day, “let’s go.”

Needing the collective weight of many farms to build an industry, Ruskey formed Frinj Coffee (officially, they use all caps, as in FRINJ). He put Good Land Organics under that umbrella and invested in the technology and the human talent to take the harvests from sweet cherries to roasted beans. Then Ruskey began “aggressively” enlisting other farmers who were seeking a high-end crop that served multiple purposes, from withstanding the market swings of lemons and avocados to providing a base for agritourism to adding value to existing orchards through interplanting. As per the innovative Frinj model, those farms’ harvested beans go straight to the company, which handles the rest, from fermenting and roasting to marketing and sales. 

“I took the world’s most complicated supply chain​  — over 20 hands usually touch coffee before you drink it​ — and I can go from farmer to Frinj to consumer. That gives the highest return possible for the farmer,” said Ruskey, who’s pledged to pay 50 percent of each harvest’s value back to the grower. “It always irked me that, in high-priced coffee, the farmer doesn’t know what’s going on. In general, coffee farmers get under 5 percent return. What Frinj does in California is like nowhere else in the world.”

It is, however, still just an experiment. Growing coffee, which originally hails from Ethiopia and tends to be grown in the tropics where water is free, land is cheap, and labor is cheaper, is challenging in our dry Mediterranean climate. The plants need about as much water as avocados, but they can be planted much more densely and pay exponentially more. There are no serious coffee pests or diseases currently in California​ — largely because coffee has never been grown here​  — but they could show up tomorrow. Meanwhile, other countries, specifically those that consume large amounts of coffee and sit on the actual Mediterranean Sea, might jump on board one day and undercut the premium pricing.

This is all the more tenuous when Californian coffee fetches $80 to $450 a pound, which can translate to $20 cups at a café. But the market for high-end coffee continues to skyrocket, and experts do agree: Frinj Coffee competes with the best beans in the world, which is a testament to the benefits of this coastal climate and to the meticulous efforts of Ruskey to constantly educate his collective and improve their processes. 

“There’s slight anxiety around the whole thing, and not just because of the coffee,” said Ruskey as we finished our cups of his top-shelf geisha beans that morning. “It’s real; it feels real; it is really happening. But there seems to be an understanding that it could totally crack.”

FARMING THE FOOTHILLS: The 42-acre Good Land Organics farm where the Ruskeys grow coffee and much more sits in the foothills on the western edge of Goleta. The coffee plants produce bright-red cherries, which must be dried to produce the beans. | Credit: Macduff Everton

Bean Genes

Coffee makes the perfect poster child for global inequality. To put it crudely, dark-skinned people in poor countries get paid next to nothing to grow a product for lighter-skinned people in rich countries, where that product is consumed daily, without much regard to the true human or ecological price of a pour.

This chasm plays out in many facets of the industry, including the science side. That’s what Juan Medrano, a longtime professor of animal science at UC Davis, suddenly found out in March 2013, when he began investigating the DNA of coffee. 

Medrano, who was born near the coffee lands of Antigua, Guatemala, is renowned for his 30-plus years of genetic work on cows, particularly to improve milk production. But his interest in coffee was sparked by his friend Ricardo Koyner, a top coffee grower in Boquete, Panama. “Hey, Juan,” asked Koyner, “why don’t you do that same thing you do for cows for coffee?”

So Medrano went down and brought cuttings back to Davis to check them out. “Trying to analyze the data, we realized there was no genome sequence of coffee,” said Medrano. In other words, there was no baseline with which to compare Koyner’s cuttings. “Everyone was surprised; I was surprised,” said Medrano. “There is a disconnect. Coffee is mainly produced in developing countries where there is very little funding.”

In a world where everything from puffer fish and body lice to Persian walnuts and platypus have been sequenced​ — roughly 3,500 species overall, including about 600 plant species and 300 animal species since the technology was created in 1977​ — how could one of the world’s most popular crops remain unexamined? Medrano couldn’t let that stand.

As Medrano contemplated the challenges of acquiring clean cuttings from Central American farms for this extremely sensitive process, he heard from his son, who was attending graduate school at UCSB, that some guy was growing coffee in the hills above Goleta. “I had no idea,” replied Medrano. “That’s fantastic.” 

The next weekend in June 2014, Medrano was touring Good Land Organics, where he learned that Ruskey had the geisha variety, an ideal candidate for sequencing due to its distinctive nature. “Jay was very willing and happy to collaborate with us,” said Medrano.

Given his background in investigating all sorts of species, Ruskey was well aware of the need for this work. “The plant material in the coffee world has been left alone,” he explained. “For how much coffee we consume, we’ve ignored, as an industry, plant development.”

And that’s critical, especially when building a brand-new regional industry with a plant that’s never been commercially grown in this environment. Understanding a species’ genome allows growers to identify good and bad traits of certain varieties and then to breed plants that work best for a given setting. Just as critical, the genetic key allows breeders to track hybrids immediately rather than waiting years for nature to reveal the results. “If you make crosses, you can actually tell if you create a cross,” said Medrano. Put simply, knowing the genes of beans adds jet fuel to the Frinj engine. 

Not that the sequencing happened overnight. Finding funding even in the developed world wasn’t easy for Medrano, who talked to numerous coffee organizations in the United States and elsewhere. “Everybody thought it was a really good idea and interesting, but that’s as far as I got,” he said. 

Then he heard from his Japanese friend José Kawashima, considered one of the world’s top “coffee hunters.” Kawashima was tight with folks over at Suntory, one of the world’s largest beverage companies. The corporation agreed to fund the genome sequencing project, and Medrano was off. Well, sort of. 

“If you could work continuously, you could do it in a year,” he said of the project, which had just enough funding for technical services but not salaries. “It took us more than four years.” 

Those results were released in 2017. Along the way, Medrano and Ruskey became good friends, and the professor signed on as a Frinj’s chief technology officer. 

Though he himself comes from the tropics, Medrano appreciates how the California climate can produce a unique coffee. In Central American locales like Boquete, the best coffee grows high up on the volcano, as the altitude makes for cooler evenings, which slows the coffee bean’s metabolism and makes for a long growing season. Along the coast of Santa Barbara and points south, the warm days are cut by fog and sea breezes, creating a similar effect. 

“We’re planting almost at sea level, but we are doing the same as they do in altitude with latitude,” said Medrano. “That’s why the maturation of the cherries in California takes a long time, almost 11 months, but we get good-quality cherries capable of producing very good-quality coffee.”

Evolution of a Farm

Coffee wasn’t Ruskey’s first stab at a challenging, out-of-place fruit. Cherimoyas were. 

The year was 1989, and Ruskey’s parents​ — dad, a probate lawyer, and mom, the president of the Junior League of Los Angeles, among other philanthropic, community-building causes​ — saw how deep their Hollywood-raised son was getting into agriculture. Ruskey had fallen in with the surf community of Ventura and Santa Barbara while growing up and connected with ag while working as a laborer on cut-flower farms in Carpinteria. He was enrolled at Cal Poly but not making much progress in flowers or horticulture, so his parents bought a farm at the end of Farren Road in Goleta, then called Condor Ridge Ranch. 

“I can farm in this land,” thought Ruskey, agreeing to manage the property while finishing college. “That refocused my efforts. It made my schooling a lot more real.”

The 42-acre property was planted mostly to cherimoya, but that orchard was no longer producing. They’re an extremely difficult crop, requiring hand pollination and then going from rock-hard when harvested to gooey-ripe when you turn your back. 

“I got a crash course on exotic fruit farming and, immediately after, how to market highly perishable exotic fruits,” said Ruskey, who actually attended Cheremoya Avenue Elementary. He found his way into some farmers’ markets up north and enjoyed connecting directly with consumers to hear what they wanted. 

Given that cherimoya only needed attention for about five months of the year, Ruskey was able to start a Cal Poly chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, which taught him organizational and public speaking skills. He also traveled to farms across the Central Coast, and eventually started dabbling in passionfruit, caviar limes, lychee, longans, papaya, and so on. 

“I was trying to find a way to have year-round cash flow for the farm, and to keep my employees happy and busy,” he said of his constant diversification model. “It really sucks for vacation time, but from a business standpoint, it seemed like the right thing.”

And that’s when coffee came across the table. Ruskey planted his first bush 21 years ago, when there wasn’t much of a high-end market. “I grew it because I was a sucker for hard-to-grow crops,” he laughed during a recent phone call. 

CUPPING TIME: Experts believe that Frinj produces some of the highest-quality coffee in the world, able to command up to $450 per pound. The Ruskeys brew and share coffee on their farm during tours. | Credit: Macduff Everton

His wife, Kristen, confirmed as much. “You had a reputation for growing things that were difficult to grow,” she said. “There was always someone challenging the next person with something new and unique. Jay was part of that.” 

To date, Good Land Organics has been the testing ground for many dozens of fruit species trials, and that work continues alongside the coffee. When Jay and I tramped around the hills last June, ostensibly to check out his coffee bushes, he also gave me a Surinam cherry and tree tomato to try while explaining the wonders of ice cream bean trees, wampee (a grape-sized citrus), and a variety of drought-tolerant species ideal for windbreaks, like the Australian she-oak. Once back in the barn, he also let me try a small fruit only under a code of secrecy. It was delicious.

Unlike Jay’s urban upbringing​ — his Jesuit high school Loyola sat squarely in South Central gangland​ — Kristen grew up in the bucolic Sierra foothills of Tehachapi, where she became a world-champion equestrian. Having trained in Buellton, she wound up at UCSB studying communications. When she was 21 and an intern at the S.B. Zoo, she attended a holiday party and met Jay, who was 26. 

They got married on the farm on September 29, 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite the timing, it was a joyous affair, said Kristen, explaining, “People were happy to celebrate something good.”

Kids soon came​ — a daughter in 2006, and then surprise twins in 2009. “At that point, we were both pretty reliant on coffee drinks,” said Kristen, who’d spent much of her twenties working for Red Bull, creating experiences around that caffeinated beverage.  

By then, Jay was just beginning to grasp that coffee was unlike any other crop he’d handled. “It’s different than just picking something off a tree, sorting it based on weight and size, and selling it,” he explained. “Coffee is a whole different beast. It’s like being a baker, so that was quite the learning curve.” 

He was already a go-to guy for other farmers looking to plant the next cool crop, and coffee kept rising to the brim of those conversations. “More than half the United States drinks coffee,” said Ruskey. “It kept resonating with everyone.” Meanwhile, the prices kept setting records year over year, opening the door further for $80-plus-per-pound coffee from California to succeed. 

By that pivotal year of 2017, when Frinj was formed, Ruskey was working with 18 farms. Today, more than 70 have been planted. The bulk of these farms aren’t part of the formula yet, because it takes up to five years for coffee plants to produce a commercial crop. But there will be more than 20 farms ready in 2022. 

“Next year,” said Ruskey, “is a big year.” 

Credit: Macduff Everton

Planting Partners

With nearly 20,000 coffee plants going into the ground this year, CEO David Armstrong’s Ventura-based Hobson Family Farms is the biggest of Frinj’s 70-plus partners. The six-generation family-owned company goes back to William Dewey Hobson, who settled in the region in 1859 and went to Sacramento to carve the new Ventura County out from the larger Santa Barbara County in 1871. Though they slowly sold off agricultural holdings over the decades​ — including what’s now the Pierpont neighborhood​ — Hobson-Smith LLC (the official name) continues to farm vast acreages across the state, from avos and lemons in Santa Paula to those row crops on 101 south of Rincon to 4,500 acres of vineyard in Monterey County. 

Armstrong, who was raised in Colorado but enjoyed success as a real estate investor in Los Angeles before moving to Ventura in 2003, is the first non-family CEO for the Hobsons. He met them through his work creating the Downtown Ventura Organization, the city’s very successful business improvement district, and started working for the company five years ago, with no agricultural background. The current Hobson and Smith generations are pursuing their own dreams, he said, but are still very involved at the board level. 

“One of the nice things working for a generational company is that I’m not looking at quarterly profits,” said Armstrong. “I’m looking at what it’s gonna do for the grandkids. And a big part of that is sustainability. That’s what they want. That’s important to them. It’s really not a choice anymore.”

A couple of disasters led Armstrong to coffee. “The Thomas Fire did a number on us,” said Armstrong, who was in the middle of replanting their scorched ranch near Santa Paula with the traditional avocado and lemon orchards. Then came COVID. 

“All of a sudden, half of our market disappeared,” said Armstrong, referring particularly to lemons, which were hammered when restaurants shut down. “I was looking for ways to diversify and not be so subject to those aspects of the market. We already have all the other risks with farming. We’ve got a strong base, but we can start branching out to see what else works.”

He was skeptical when first meeting with Ruskey in October 2020. “Everyone I tell, they say, ‘You can’t grow coffee in California!’” said Armstrong. “I spent a lot of time working to understand why it works here, and it made me think it will work. You can see Jay’s results.”

Credit: Macduff Everton

Working with a near-blank slate of 14 acres, which they identified from across the ranch’s 7,000 acres based on soil quality and wind protection, the Frinj partners redid all the irrigation with efficiency in mind, mulched dying lemon trees to go at the base of the coffee bushes, and left rows of old lemon trees up as windbreaks. They planted both heavy-bearing and quality-minded coffee varieties, with ice cream bean trees interplanted for shade. 

“It’s really amazing how helpful Jay and his team are,” said Armstrong. “They’re on everything. That really helps us mitigate the farming side of the risk, and it benefits both of us. We’re not skimping on anything. If this is gonna work, we have to do everything that we can to make sure it works.”

Now familiar with how the lemon and avocado industries work​ — where packing houses function like loose cooperatives​ — Armstrong is enthused about the more involved Frinj arrangement. “The Frinj model might eventually become the model,” he explained, “where there’s a partnership in terms of getting the best possible product.”

The Hobson planting just started in June, so there probably won’t be a commercial harvest until at least 2025. But Armstrong is already giddy about the potential that coffee presents for income-generating tourism. Like Ruskey, he sees winery-like tasting rooms down the road, and he looks forward to hosting tours and selling coffee on-site while exploring the byproducts of the process, like the antioxidant-rich sweet tea that comes from the fresh cherry flesh.

“People crave experience, and where else can you get a coffee experience in the United States?” asked Armstrong. “We have to have an agritourism face to expose people to all of these cool things.” 

The tourism attraction angle is already in action down at The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, where CEO Chris Calkins first started planting coffee bushes in 2014. At the time, he was looking for crops that his 300,000 annual visitors could relate to, but also that weren’t vulnerable to pests and relatively low in water usage. He went with olives (from which they make and sell oil), blueberries, and coffee, now tending to about 1,500 plants between the ranch and his own home in Leucadia, called Quail Haven. 

In the future, he’d like to be selling brewed coffee, packaging beans into gift bags for the weddings and special events that they host, and explaining more of the entire coffee process. But for right now, it’s mostly look and see, although people can snag a ripe berry if they find one. “They’re really pretty,” he said of the bushes themselves. “They have beautiful, glossy green leaves. Aesthetically, it’s pleasing.”

He laughed when I asked if there have been any struggles along the way. “For farming, you can never say that things go smoothly​ — there’s always something,” said Calkins. For instance, last year, they harvested a whopping 5,000 pounds from 250 mature trees. “The trouble is, we exhausted the trees, so this year it’s going to be lighter,” said Calkins. “We’re trying to figure out how to balance this.” They’re also experimenting with reclaimed water to see if they can get the same quality even with higher salinity. 

No matter the ups or downs, all roads lead back to Frinj. “We’re really relying on Jay and his group,” said Calkins. “They’re doing the marketing, and they are trying to execute a strategy that will benefit all of us.” 

If it doesn’t work out? “What’s the worst case?” said Calkins. “We drink our own coffee. What’s so bad about that?”

Credit: Macduff Everton

But How’s the Coffee?

After 30 years spent in the upper echelons of the coffee industry, Lindsey Bolger​ — who went from being a barista during college to running Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and then Keurig​ — was highly skeptical when she first heard coffee was being grown on the West Coast. “Really, that seems like a bit of a stretch,” she recalled over the phone while sitting on a park bench in Nantucket. “If I really wanted a great cup of coffee, I’d know where to go, and it isn’t California.”

Bolger is considered one of the world’s greatest cuppers, the highly trained judges of coffee quality whose opinions​ — which are usually in alignment due to their strict standards and protocols​ — dictate high-end pricing. Their regimented analysis covers a laundry list of data points very few people even think about when slurping their cup, from dry and wet fragrances to retro nasal vapors to uniformity and cleanliness to various types of acidity. “Coffee without acid is like champagne without bubbles,” said Bolger.

Developed over the past couple of decades, this cupping process is educating both consumers (on why they should pay more) and farmers (on why they can charge more), and it aims to be an objective means of determining which farms are really special. “Not every coffee farm can produce coffee of high quality,” said Bolger. “Do you have the raw materials, the soils, the coffee varietals, the knowledge of coffee farming, of coffee processing, and eventual coffee roasting?” 

She believes the “Four Ps” are critical to answering that question. “The right place, right plant, right process, and right people,” she explained. “Those fundamentally create the foundation for whether or not a coffee is actually going to meet expectations or exceed them.”

When she finally tried Ruskey’s California-grown coffee in 2019, the Ps seemed to be in place. “It was the actual cupping experience of putting coffee to my lips and understanding that automatically and sensorially, it absolutely could hold its own against some of the highest-quality and highest-priced coffees,” said Bolger, who now consults as a cupper for Frinj. “He’s making a bold claim that coffee of exceptional quality can be grown in California and that California can procure something that is distinct enough to capture the interest and attention of consumers who are willing to pay a premium for their coffee experience. And he’s proven that.”

She recognizes the irony of $80-plus-per-pound coffee grown by mostly wealthy folks in Southern California as somehow being a savior for a global commodity market. But she believes it is a step in the right direction. “For as long as I’ve been in the industry, which is 30 years, coffee has been significantly undervalued by the industry, by the trade, and by consumers,” said Bolger. “It’s really about time that we took all of those considerations into account: cost of production, cost of labor, cost of quality, cost of marketing. If Jay can set a new bar, I honestly think that the industry, regardless of where you’re growing coffee, will benefit.” 

At least maybe, she continued, Americans used to cheap coffee will stop rolling their eyes when they see a $12.99-per-pound coffee for sale in the grocery store bins. Said Bolger, “That really doesn’t come close to reflecting the value and the effort required to create that coffee.”

Back up in Ventura, where David Armstrong is betting a small slice of the Hobson Family Farms on coffee, he’s embracing Frinj’s global message as well. “It’s amazing that, in California, we have all these people who love their CSA boxes and farmers’ markets, but they use poorly paid labor and bring what they drink every day in from Central and South America,” he said. “How cool is it going to be when you can be a locavore for coffee?”

Learn more about Frinj and order coffee at

Try Frinj Yourself 

Do you want to try this Goleta-grown coffee for yourself? Golden Line, which is located inside of Villa Wine Bar at 618 Anacapa Street, is pouring hand-brewed cups of Frinj every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. There are two options, both grown by Jay Ruskey himself at Good Land Organics: The Geisha is $16 a cup and the Caturra is $10 a cup.


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