The term "farm to table" is so ubiquitous that it's lost all meaning, but one market the local food movement has yet to fully infiltrate is the neighborhood coffee shop.
Coffee beans have always come from high-altitude mountains in Africa or Latin America, but recently there's a group of farmers in California challenging coffee's status as import-only. It's an admirable mission, but to find out if it's viable we spoke to a group of industry insiders ranging from coffee farming PhD candidates to organic farmers with 42 years in the business. There wasn't a consensus on whether you'll be seeing US grown coffee on the shelves anytime soon, but we might be waking up to American beans sooner than we think.
The case against USA-grown coffee
The traditional “coffee belt” where high-quality arabica beans thrive is 15 degrees above or below the equator. Geographical location, plus high elevations, lead to a moderate climate that Latin American growers refers to as siempre primavera (“always spring”).
“Coffee is a tropical crop. It's very wimpy. If it freezes, it will die in like two hours. It can handle heat, but not a lot of heat,” says Shawn Steiman of the Coffea Consulting and the Daylight Mind Coffee Company.
One important part of these tropical climates is heavy rainfall, and the difference between traditional growing regions and the US is striking. California receives 15-30 inches a year, while coffee-growing regions average 40-60, with some areas hitting up to 100 inches. That deficit is a huge barrier, and it begs the question as to whether coffee is really the best use of California's dwindling water supplies.
The last piece of the harvesting puzzle is the people actually picking the beans. Even the most generous of Latin American farmers only pay their workers a fraction of American minimum wage.
“I initially discarded the idea of farming in the US because a Latin American coffee picker might make $4 a day, but a California worker expects $10 an hour,” says Mark Gaskell, farm adviser at University of California Cooperative Extension.
Once the coffee is actually harvested, it has to make economic sense for a roaster to buy it. “For $5 a pound you can buy some really incredible green beans,” says Joel Shuler, the coffee science doctorate student behind Casa Brasil Coffee. Good Land Organics, the current figurehead for the California coffee movement, currently has samples of unroasted coffee for sale on their site for $50 per pound. Naturally that price would drop with bulk, but it's still not realistic for a smaller roaster to purchase.
The case FOR USA-grown beans
California is outside the traditional coffee belt, but there's a sweet spot where the crop might be able to thrive.
“If you imagine a globe in your hand, the sun is shining straight at equator. In California, the sun is at a significant angle. That angle will make 250m above sea level the equivalent of 1500 meters. It's how we've adapted to grow avocados, which is a tropical mountain plant,” says organic-farming consultant Scott Murray of Murray Farms.
Despite the state's crippling drought, creative farming techniques might be the answer. Small trenches called micro-swales help make the most out of rainwater and can lessen a farmer's water needs by 50%. High density planting, where coffee bushes are grown under younger avocado trees, creates a rain-forest effect that allows for the growth of three times the crops in the same amount of space, using nearly half the water.
More importantly, domestic farms give consumers any easier opportunity to see coffee growing first-hand, increasing their appreciation for the drink and also bringing in some welcome tourism dollars. Farm-to-table might be an overused phrase, but it's still a concept people rally behind.
Price, well, that's still a problem
Hawaii's specialty coffee industry serves as an example of American workers producing marketable coffee, but a loophole in the demarcation of Kona Coffee (only 10% needs to be Hawaiian) means that farmers make up costs using cheap filler coffees from elsewhere.
In terms of green bean prices, the highest-scoring harvests from Latin America auction for upwards of $15 a pound, which means American beans would need to be competitive in quality to get anywhere close to that figure. Good Land's California Caturraa did earn a coveted place on Coffee Review's Top 30 of 2014 list, but at $27 for a 5oz bag, it was the list's most expensive outside of fetishized geisha varieties.
So will people buy it?
Whether this type of operation can scale to a level that's reasonable for the average farmer, roaster, and consumer is yet to be seen, but market viability be damned, the American coffee industry is here. Mark cites 16 established farms, with a dozen more launching in the coming months. Still, everyone we talked to expressed skepticism that the market could become truly viable.
“There's a great sense of joy and excitement. There's a lot of splash and story and romance, but the question is if its realistic,” says Shawn.
The bottom line is still the major problem. It takes a very special type of coffee nerd to pay $50 for a bag of American coffee that isn't as good as a $20 bag from Ethiopia. That said, some farms are already making the numbers work.
“We are at a stage where California coffee growers are able to cover our production costs with a margin. Granted, not a huge margin, but such is farming in general,” says Lindsey McManus of Good Land Organics.
Fighting the odds doesn't make sense unless the American coffee farming industry can be about more than just what makes it into the cup, but the opportunity is there. Climate change is threatening farms internationally, so sowing the seeds for an American outpost is actually pragmatic. Following in the footsteps of the California wine industry, margins could be leveled with coffee tourism dollars and a willingness for customers to pay more once they see the supply chain up close. But for now, it will still take a true patriot -- and a wealthy one -- to drink American.